Readers familiar with Koch’s other novels – among them the bestselling The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool – will recognise the writer’s talent for depicting complex characters. This new book is also full of his trademark social commentary, from euthanasia to green energy, infidelity to the differences in various European cultures. There are some laugh-out-loud set-pieces... The unnecessary diversions into the mechanics of civic life can be tiresome at times, and although the ambiguity works well for much of the novel, it fails to deliver an impactful ending. But ultimately Koch gets away with his digressions in a story whose charm is in the telling and less so in the discoveries. A playful and fluid translation by Sam Garrett does much to help the book on its way. For all its tangents and phoney tribulations, this is a book firmly rooted in reality.
As an exploration of pathological jealousy, The Ditch is largely convincing... The focus on Robert’s jealousy, however, proves short-lived... The various strands never fully cohere, and in an apparent effort to make them do so, Koch makes his characters do implausible things. Nothing in the book’s latter stages proves as compelling as the paranoia it initially explored. The Ditch, you can’t help feeling, would have been more successful had it cleaved more tightly to its opening theme.
That’s not to say that the pages do not whizz past, aided by Sam Garnett’s pacy translation. Koch’s skill at drawing a scene makes it an enjoyable ride. A twist involving Robert’s wisecracking, womanising father getting what might be a new lease of life in his dotage is entertainingly grim. And when reality begins to dissolve there are hints of something more intellectually engaging, particularly when it comes to the moral compass of politicians.
It is a rambling novel, notably lacking in tension. You just know from the beginning that Robert is deluding himself about his wife’s “affair”, so it’s not an intriguing set-up and it’s just frustrating when her every word and move is agonised over. When she asks him something, he thinks: “A completely normal question — too normal, perhaps.”... Occasionally passages spark into life — ranting about the character of Amsterdam being destroyed by tourists and wind turbines, or the “childishness” of the Dutch in playing at life instead of confronting its realities like his wife’s countrymen. But when even a revelation as devastating as admitting to battering a policeman turns out to cause no ripples, you know this baggy, self-indulgent, meandering book is going nowhere.