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Marc Schlosser is a General Practitioner in Holland. As time has passed, his practice has gradually become a place frequented by artists and actors, often suffering from either hypochondria or illnesses brought on by their lifestyles. Marc has a reputation for being willing to help out with the occasional prescription for drugs that might not be strictly medically necessary. His patients think he’s wonderful and caring (or so he tells us) mainly because he allows twenty minutes for an appointment and appears to want to listen to what they want to say. But the reader has the dubious privilege of seeing inside Marc’s head, and we soon learn that he’s rather different to the image he projects.
Occasionally I’ll ask someone to undress behind the screen, but most of the time I don’t. Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and infections between the toes…
As the book begins we learn that Marc is being investigated for malpractice by the Board of Medical Examiners over the death of one of his patients, successful actor Ralph Maier. As he waits to learn the outcome, Marc tells the story of how Ralph became his patient and of how their families gradually became acquainted, culminating with Marc taking his wife and two young daughters to stay with Ralph’s family in his summer house, complete with swimming pool. Sexual attraction turns the house-party into a bubbling cauldron of hidden and not-so-hidden emotions, gradually coming to a boil as we move towards the shocking incident that’s at the heart of the story.
This is a wonderful book. The writing is brilliant and the translation by Sam Garrett is so good that I had to check that it actually was a translation – it reads as smoothly as if it were originally written in English. Most of the characters are fairly repellent, with both Marc and Ralph coming close to being grotesques, and yet Koch keeps the reader totally involved, desperate to know what happened and why. The book deals with some pretty dark subject matter relating to how society views women and in particular young girls and Koch doesn’t shy away from making the reader uncomfortable to the point of squirming. But it’s richly laced with some really wicked humour that made me laugh out loud at many points, while wishing somehow that I wasn’t finding it funny!
What a lovely pair of girls! The next instant they’re thinking about their own children…They become angry with the father who has had better luck. Biology is a force to be reckoned with. An ugly child is a child you love with all your heart and soul too. But it’s different. You’re pleased with your third-floor walk-up, too, until someone invites you over to dinner at a house with a pool in the garden.
Marc’s views range from the conventional to the outrageous and part of the discomfort for the reader is that awful feeling of recognition – of suddenly hearing Marc say that thing we wish we had never thought and would never dare to say in our politically correct world. We’d like to disassociate ourselves entirely from him, but Koch won’t let us. For Marc is no simple monster – he has a wife and daughters who love him and he functions well in society – he’s just close enough to normal to make him truly disturbing as he reminds us that we never really know what is going on behind the surface in anyone. And yet, as the story unfolds, it’s almost impossible not to find oneself empathising with him, which is the most disturbing thing of all.
Dark, funny and thought-provoking, in the end this is as much about the diseases of the soul as of the body, the two somehow tangled together in Marc’s mind. The pacing is perfect, the writing and translation are superb, and Marc is an unforgettable character. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion – highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.