Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

I don’t put myself in the ‘weak stomach’ category. Blood, guts, spew, poo – I obviously don’t love these things but they certainly don’t turn my stomach. In contrast, my eldest son and husband are not made of such strong stuff – my son literally vomited when he saw a ‘brown shark’ in the bath once and gags when I’m cutting raw meat for dinner. My husband has learned from experience that he should sit down for any discussion about medical procedures* because otherwise he’ll pass out – it ranges from blood tests to watching footy players do a knee – it all makes him woozy.

Which brings me to Herman Koch’s latest book, Summer House with Swimming Pool. It made me feel yuck. Yuck sounds weak, but it’s accurate – Koch writes with a consistent and unnerving veneer of yuck. References to folds of fat on people’s backs, hair in crevices, pus and pimples, weeping sores and patches of dry, angry skin – the language is so deliberate, so detailed and so relentless that I  felt truly revolted. Which of course makes it very good writing.

“The smell of old man beneath the sheets. The flaking skin.”

“There is no clear demarcation between lower back and buttocks, and after the tailbone the skin disappears into a dark, clenched crack.”

“Yellow sperm. Yellow as the pages of a book that no one wanted to read, which is why it was left out in the sun beside the deck chair. Filthy, worthless sperm that smells like a half-finished bottle of fermented dairy drink stuck at the back of the fridge and then forgotten.”

But my praise stops there. Unfortunately it seems that Koch has followed the formula he used in his best-seller, The Dinner: horrid characters, a terrible incident, moral judgements, an unreliable narrator and parents having to make decisions on behalf of their children. It worked so well in The Dinner, a book that I genuinely could not put down, however, in Summer House, the key plot point provides less room for nuance or moral debate. Without giving the story away, I don’t believe parents would have acted the way they did in this book. Koch could have possibly won me back with a wham-bam-ending but again, I was left disappointed – the finish was an inconclusive fizzle.

2/5 Some are saying that if you enjoyed The Dinner, you’ll also enjoy Summer House. I’m not. If you enjoyed The Dinner, I think you’ll find Summer House lazy and irritating.

One of the main characters is an actor named Ralph Meier. Meier spends a lot of time perving on women and Koch’s descriptions are appropriately repulsive – licking his lips, Meier stares at women “…as though he were at a party where the waiters come by with trays of croquettes, satay, and liverwurst.” So with that in mind, enjoy a croquette. Specifically, these cheddar potato numbers from Lady and Pups. They include bacon. And sour cream. And garlicky Panko crumbs. I know. Stop reading, start mashing potato.

I received my copy of  Summer House with Swimming Pool from the publisher, Crown Publishing, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

* But was surprisingly okay when I delivered babies because, in his words, “…it’s not something that is ever going to actually happen to me.”

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16 responses

    • I was the same about The Dinner – characters were all horrid but I couldn’t put it down. Plus, I thought it was clever how Koch prompted the reader to shift alliances.

      No such treatment with Summer House – the plot is clumsy. There are bits of really good writing but save your reading time for other stuff.

  1. Urgh. Whilst like yourself I’m not overly bothered by these things – snotty noses being a whole other thing – this book does sound rather heavy on the gross factor. Not a novel I can see myself reading soon, if ever, thanks for the warning.

  2. I like good dark fiction, but I’m not fond of the grotesque. I’ll skip this one, since The Dinner was so fabulous.

    I need to make that recipe, like right now.

  3. Completely agree. Couldn’t put The Dinner down, but this one just left me feeling icky. And it wasn’t just the gross bodily fluid stuff-the whole story just made me feel like I needed a shower.

  4. Pingback: Review: Summer House With Swimming Pool | Giraffe Days

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