The Dutch novelist Herman Koch has a merciless talent for trapping readers inside the minds of particularly unpleasant narrators. His 2012 novel The Dinner compelled us to view bourgeois Amsterdam through the eyes of a liar simmering with anger and contempt. And the protagonist in Summer House with Swimming Pool is an even more disturbing specimen. Marc Schlosser is a physician, a man we want to trust when we enter his consulting room. ''I take my time,'' Schlosser begins, ''…They think I give them more attention than other doctors. But all I give them is more time. By the end of sixty seconds I've seen all I need to know.'' Faking concern, Schlosser regards his rich and often famous clients with disdain and the human body with disgust. ''I don't want to see them,'' he admits, ''those parts where the sun never shines… I pretend to look but I'm thinking about something else.'' The ritual of the physical examination is sadistically described: ''Turn on your side. I pull the rubber gloves tighter over my fingers and further over my wrists. The sound of snapping rubber always reminds me of party balloons.'' With such graphic details coming in just the first few pages, Koch creates an atmosphere of creepy intimacy and inchoate menace that thickens as the plot unfolds.
This is an elegant revenge drama with a horrible twist, the machinery of which begins smoothly turning when a famous actor seeks Schlosser's advice. ''Now we're eighteen months down the road and Ralph Meier is dead,'' Schlosser recalls, ''…Something you might describe as a 'medical error.' '' The nature of that error is revealed only toward the end, in one of the novel's most chilling scenes (''I pushed the scalpel in until I reached healthy tissue… At this moment I was sowing something''), but at the outset Koch reveals just enough to snare the reader and sharpen the tension. On his deathbed, Meier apologizes to Schlosser, but for what? At Meier's graveside, his widow spits in Schlosser's face. Schlosser is called before the Board of Medical Examiners. It is on the eve of this showdown that Schlosser's narrative returns to the moment when the Meiers and Schlossers meet. Ralph eyes Schlosser's wife wolfishly; Schlosser casts a clinical eye on Judith Meier. The Meiers' son and the Schlossers' daughter are mutually attracted. Lying to his wife, Schlosser soon makes sure that the families run into each other on a Mediterranean vacation where the novel settles into a languorous rhythm that is violently broken when Schlosser's daughter is attacked. ''That evening, the rest of our lives began,'' Schlosser observes. ''…Everything gets heavier. Especially time.'' Koch is a nimble writer who makes few missteps (a digression into quasi-ethics, courtesy of a Professor Herzl, is one) as he subtly alters Schlosser's tone from sardonic flippancy to subdued rage that clouds his vision and ours until the final page. Even then, when holiday photographs take on a sinister significance (in a nod perhaps to Thomas Harris's Red Dragon), we cannot be certain of what we see.
Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.
Reviewer: Anna Mundow