GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2014
Summer House with Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch
This is not a great read, which is a shame, for Dutch author Herman Koch is a powerful writer, eminently capable at exposing his characters’ weaknesses and neuroses, as in his excellent ‘The Dinner’ (reviewed January, 2013 below). He misses the mark badly this time, though he employs the same formula which was so successful with ‘The Dinner’.
Once again, the story is narrated by a damaged individual who, on the surface is an eminently successful General Practitioner to the film and arts community of Amsterdam; he has a loving wife and two young girls and an enviable social life, recipient of so many invitations to exhibitions and opening nights that the occasions have lost their pulling power and have become a chore. He is the envy of many – until his narration of his private thoughts (particularly concerning his patients) reveal what a remorselessly uncompassionate being he is. Marc Schlosser is so contemptuous of his patients that he can hardly bear to touch some of them ‘and their damp, dark places’: he has so little empathy for their various ‘self-induced’ illnesses that it is a perpetual mystery (to the reader, anyway,) as to why he ever decided to practice medicine in the first place. Nevertheless, he has built up a wildly successful practice mainly through word-of-mouth advertising, for Marc allows twenty minutes (twenty minutes! Anywhere else people are shown the door after five!) for each consultation, and is not above prescribing certain meds to ‘lift one’s mood’ before a big performance, or something to quieten one after the event.
As his reflections progress further, we find that he loves his two girls – but would rather have had boys; he is pleased that his wife Caroline is beautiful – but conducts affairs with those women ‘who have a certain look’; he freely acknowledges that he is charming, but a narcissist would be a better description. Marc Schlosser must surely be one of the most unpleasant characters in modern fiction.
And because of his spurious charm, Marc is persuaded to spend time at the rented summer house of his patient Ralph Meier, an internationally famous Dutch actor and his family. Ralph has also cast a lascivious eye on Marc’s wife who finds him ‘loathsome’. To Marc’s horror, Ralph obviously wants opportunities to be ‘closer’ to her, but Marc and Caroline have been railroaded into accepting because Meier has two sons, perfect companions for his daughters: the scene is set for trickery and deceit.
Trickery and deceit duly occur – but so does a crime against Julia, Marc’s eldest daughter, that shocks everyone to the core, and Marc is sure he knows the perpetrator: he will have his revenge, by a method that will be unique to a person of his knowledge and talents. He succeeds in a way that is not entirely successful, but guaranteed to give him enormous satisfaction: he is a happy man.
But did he make the right person pay for this heinous crime – or the wrong one?
There are no happy endings in this nasty little story, beautifully written though it is: I found myself hoping with increasing wistfulness for Marc to show some humanity, empathy, any positive emotion but was doomed to disappointment. Sadly, Marc remains unredeemable, with his loathsome victim coming in a close second.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch
On the front cover of this explosive little book a question is asked: ‘How far would you go to protect the ones you love?’ The reader finds out soon enough as Paul Lohman and his wife Claire prepare to meet his detested older brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner at a restaurant that has a three month waiting list: naturally, Serge didn’t have to book three months in advance; he is such a popular politician that the way is cleared for him wherever he wishes to go, for it is a foregone conclusion that he will win the next Dutch election.
Paul would be quite happy not to have contact with his brother at all; he considers him a hypocrite and a boor, coarse and unmannerly, and it mystifies him that Serge is so popular - ‘a man of the people’ – worse still, he can’t bear to be witness to the wide-eyed admiration and fawning of staff and patrons in the restaurant.
Serge has arranged the dinner for a particular reason: they must discuss their sons, 15 and 16 year old cousins who spend a lot of time together. Recently, a dreadful crime has been committed: a homeless woman was burnt to death as she sheltered in an ATM cubicle, and the Netherlands is up in arms at the sheer ruthless brutality of the act. The entire population is screaming for justice – a perfect opportunity for an astute politician to cement his already secure position as front-runner, turning to his advantage the public’s horror at the barbarity of the crime. Instead, Serge wishes to discuss with his family his retirement – for clips have surfaced on YouTube of the ATM cubicle; though the authorities are as yet unaware, the boys are implicated in the country’s most heinous murder. Serge’s son has confessed.
To read this beautifully constructed little horror story is to peel off layer after careful layer the veneers that people wrap around themselves in order to be respectable, happy, successful – normal? And the criminal lengths they will employ to preserve the façade, and the survival of those they love.
Mr. Koch is adept at leaving the reader with more questions than answers; what an excellent writer he is, helped most ably by his translator, Sam Garrett.
Canadian writer Anne Michaels once said that to read a novel in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil: that may be true, but this reader (who must always depend on translators!) marvels at the ease and facility that Mr. Garrett employs to make the words flow. There wasn’t a veil in sight. Highly recommended.
Fallout, by Paul Thomas
Detective Tito Ihaka returns (and not before time, too) in Paul Thomas’s latest great Kiwi crime novel. Life has not improved greatly for Tito since ‘Death on Demand’ (April, 2012 review below): he still has more enemies than friends at Auckland Central Police Station; his romance is teetering on the edge of destruction; his prospective new boss would love to get rid of him; and he has just found out that his beloved dad (a maverick just like him, but a thorn in the side of the Union movement, as opposed to the police) may have been murdered instead of dying of a heart attack, as Tito and his mother always believed.
He has also been handed a 27 year-old cold case: in 1987 a decent seventeen year-old girl was murdered at VERY posh party held at an exclusive Remuera address. Ranks closed around the big names attending the party; a wall of silence was so successfully erected that the police finally gave up bashing their heads against it – until Superintendent Finbar McGrail sics Ihaka onto the case; McGrail has never been able to forget that he couldn’t make headway in finding the girl’s killer, and feels he owes it to her memory to solve the crime before he is forced into early retirement: by his reckoning, Tito Ihaka is the man for the job.
Once again, Mr Thomas does an excellent job of dotting i’s and crossing t’s – there are no loose ends in his convoluted but logical plot: all is satisfactorily explained by the finishing page, and there are some interesting – and unlikely new allegiances forged in time for the next episode, which won’t be too long in coming, one hopes.
I know Mr Thomas is a busy boy; he has a lot more strings to his bow than dashing off Tito Ihaka novels, but still! That huge, Tell-that-to-someone-who-gives-a-f--- upholder of justice and the law is irresistible: we need more anti-heroes like him. He’s a babe! Highly recommended.
Death on Demand, by Paul Harris
A prominent businesswoman is killed in a hit and run accident in posh St. Heliers; a wealthy old Remuera matron dies in a mysterious fall at her home; a partner in a publishing firm about to be sold is clubbed to death in Ponsonby, and a police informer is found dead at his villa – also in Ponsonby. Oh, the corpses are turning up in every Auckland suburb in Paul Thomas’s latest book, the first of his crime novels to feature detective Tito Ihaka in a starring role, and a lot of readers would say ‘and about time, too!’
Detective Ihaka is not known for toeing the line and keeping a low profile – well, he couldn’t because of hi s enormous size - but he managed to rub so many people the wrong way at Auckland Central, particularly because of his conviction that the St. Heliers hit-and-run investigation should be classed as murder, that he was exiled to the Wairarapa for five years. Now, at the request of the dying widower of the late businesswoman, he has been brought back to hear What Really Happened. The widower wants to confess. It is as Ihaka always suspected: Hubby hired a hitman, identity unknown, who carried out his orders most efficiently. Oh, Ihaka could wallow like a hippo in all the ‘I told you so’s’ but is content to let his superiors at Central try to clean the egg off their faces : he wants to track down the hitman before any more contracts are undertaken, particularly as he has a nasty suspicion that he might be the next victim.
Paul Harris has constructed a very competent and well plotted story; all the loose ends are satisfactorily tidied away by the end of the novel, but the big attraction here is Mr. Ihaka, a singular character in his own right. The snappy, riotously funny dialogue is always a delight, and the sprawling, messy city of Auckland is portrayed so well that it made this reader (an old ex-Jafa) quite nostalgic. This is the ideal airport or beach read; I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it.