Friday 13 December 2019

Another menu sure to make the reader queasy

Summer House With Swimming Pool, Herman Koch Atlantic Books; tpbk, £12.99,

Star: Actress Cate Blanchett has bought the film rights to The Dinner and has said it will be her directorial debut. Photo: Christopher Polk.
Star: Actress Cate Blanchett has bought the film rights to The Dinner and has said it will be her directorial debut. Photo: Christopher Polk.

Arifa Akbar

Herman Koch's second book to be translated from his native Dutch has all the distinctive features of his first, the international bestseller The Dinner.

In this new novel, there is also a narrator who whispers warped thoughts into your ear. There is the black humour and the dangerous fantasy that might erupt into the real world at any moment. And there is the hissing satire that mocks bourgeois values and threatens a sudden, alarming loss of etiquette.

Also central to both books are children, on the cusp of adulthood, who find themselves embroiled in an act of violence.

The calm surface of the plot hinges around this singular episode of horror; until then, there are foreshadowings of it, with the quietly menacing narrative voice warning us it will come, soon.

The violence in Summer House is not quite as impactful as in The Dinner, which featured two teenage boys caught on CCTV committing a brutal, motiveless crime. The two couples, who are parents of the boys, meet for dinner to discuss what to do. The boys have remained unidentified, except by the parents.

The book was an exploration of how far each couple would go to protect their child, which gave the story a moral dimen-sion.

In this new novel, the violence is not as startling because we see it coming. A 13-year-old daughter dragged along by her parents to holiday with a more glamorous family is marked by it, but this act in itself doesn't spark a moral dilemma as it did in The Dinner, or in Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, but only leads to more vengeful acts, which spiral into the murderously baroque.

The narrator, a GP who hates his celebrity patients, is as dead-eyed as Brett Easton Ellis's central character in Imperial Bedrooms, except that, on the outside, he is a loving family man. His rolling reel of death and pain fantasies, which mainly take place when his patients are laying on his gurney, are darkly amusing, but the cumulative pile-up of violence – real and imagined – drains and disturbs by the end. Are we in the presence of a handsome Dr Shipman, or does it stop at fantasy? The story reads better before we find out in the last third of the novel.

The narrative seems gimmicky at times, with some repeating literary ticks – Koch withholds information from the reader, delaying its telling, and there are a few too many doomy metaphors. Yet, this book is horribly thrilling, and utterly entertaining. There is a manic clarity and gleefulness to its writing. More effective than the violence is the revenge fantasy, spurred by envy, and enacted on people deemed the most successful in society.

It is funny too, when Koch satirises the rich and famous. Just as the high-end "foodie" satire was the strongest aspect of The Dinner, here the fakery of film-makers, artists, novelists, gets a brilliant mauling, and leaves you wishing for more.

416 pages Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709 350

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