The Dutch provocateur Herman Koch, who caused an international sensation with his novel The Dinner, is back. The Dinner poked into the dark regions of human behavior that are usually concealed by a veneer of civilization. His new novel, Summer House With Swimming Pool, pokes into the dark regions of human behavior that are usually concealed by a veneer of civilization. Novel, in this case, doesn't mean new.
That said, many readers will finish this work in two or three gulps — it is that compelling. The story is told by Marc Schlosser, an "ordinary family doctor" with a wife and two adolescent daughters. Schlosser loves his family but drips with contempt for just about everyone and everything else: his patients, the plays and films he's invited to, so-called friends. As a physician, Schlosser quietly lets his patients talk because that's what they want, but he's not really listening.
The novel opens with Schlosser being called to account for a medical error involving a well-known actor, Ralph Meier, then rewinds to the previous summer that the Schlossers and Meiers spent at the Mediterranean vacation home of the title.
As with The Dinner, the theme is that you don't have to scratch a person too deeply to find the savage beneath. For Schlosser, "there was no getting around biology." At medical school, a controversial professor's lectures made a deep impression. "Instinct can't be eliminated," the professor told him. "Culture and law and order force us to keep our instincts under control, but instinct is never very far away. It's simply waiting to pounce as soon as your attention flags."
With that philosophical gloss in place, the story of the doctor's family and the actor's family at the summer house takes off, fueled by equal parts suspense and dread. Dread, because the doctor occasionally drops hints like anvils, as when he casually uses the phrase "human filth." The summer house is the stage for a variety of bad behaviors, with few escaping unspattered.
Call Koch a pessimist, but it's a pessimism you can believe in.