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Book Review: Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch


“A look says more than words alone. That’s a cliche, of course. But a cliche, also says more than words alone.” 

Summer House with Swimming Pool begins and ends with a murder.

Herman Koch’s new novel is the story of Marc, a family doctor who is smart and self-aware to a fault. He has a heightened awareness of other people and their actions combined with a compulsive need to invent fictional scenarios about these people.  This leads him to a conscious state where it is difficult to determine fact from fiction.

Marc focuses most of his obsessive thinking on Ralph Meier who he actually murdered–an important fact we learn in the very first chapter. The subsequent chapters backtrack to several months before to engage the reader in the events leading to Ralph’s death.

Being a doctor for years is clearly starting to get to Marc, and he is simultaneously apathetic and disgusted by his patients.  He is also well-known by celebrities for being a “go-to” guy who will write prescriptions for whatever they want. Ralph Meier is a high-profile Shakespearean actor who stops into Marc’s office one day in search of a drug prescription, and their interaction begins an unsteady friendship between the two men.

A film and television star, Ralph has a pretty and obnoxious wife, Judith, who doesn’t know about Ralph’s piggish appreciation for women–including Marc’s wife Caroline and their two teenage daughters. Ralph and Judith invite Marc’s family to their summer house near the beach, which has a swimming pool that wins his daughters over, resulting in the family deciding to stay longer than initially planned.

Although Ralph is easily the most detestable character in the book, Marc is not so innocent himself; we learn right from the beginning that he murdered Ralph due to a medical error, although it’s clear that Marc has no regrets about the incident. Marc also takes part in an affair with Judith behind Caroline’s back.

Marc is also excessively passive when it comes to taking action. Although he has some evidence that Ralph may be making sexual advances towards his daughters, he says and does nothing. Instead, Marc would rather brood about Ralph’s alleged pedophilia and analyze the situation that may be happening to his daughters. But for the majority of the book, he doesn’t lift a finger towards Ralph.

Only when his 14-year-old daughter Julia is attacked on the beach one night does Marc confront Ralph about molesting his daughter. He quickly–weakly–backs down when Ralph gets angry at him, opting to take the passive route of packing up and leaving with his family to go back home. After the drama of the summer house dies down, Ralph boldly returns to see Marc at his office, and we soon discover that even the way Marc murders Ralph is as passive as a murder can be.

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a book that I like to think Albert Camus would enjoy. The narrator’s emotions are not necessary indifferent towards his friends and family, but his actions are. Marc is a man who is angry at Ralph’s perversion and disgusted by his existence, but he does nothing to stop Ralph from leering at Caroline and their teenage daughters. The narrator’s viewpoint and Koch’s writing style reminds me of The Stranger and Mersault, the indifferent and passive protagonist who is always thinking, but never doing, resigned to his fate and never seeking a different outcome. If you are searching for similar authors to Camus, Herman Koch and his new novel Summer House with Swimming Pool is the perfect fix.