The Short Version: Two couples get together for dinner on an Amsterdam evening. Narrated from the point of view of one of the men, the meal progresses in fits and starts – all heading towards the topic that has brought them together, regarding their sons. In the space of just a single meal, Koch explores the lengths we’ll go to in order to protect one of our own – and the limits of that same familial bond.
The Review: What a fascinating book. You feel uncomfortable at the beginning, at least a little bit – but by the end you’re wholly wrapped up in it. It’s… I think the word might be insidious. We’re drawn into this tight, intense scenario and before we know it, we – the reader – are forced to choose a side, in a way. But it sort of just happens. It’s that sensation of suddenly realizing you’re in deeper than you thought and not quite knowing when it happened that you got there. It’s quite Camusian, if I may.
See, I felt similarly, while reading this book, to how I felt while reading The Fall (way back in the early days of this blog, as it turns out) and, to some extent, The Stranger. There is something about the act of confession in those novels – the seemingly ordinary man telling you something, explaining his story to you in comradely tones – that suckers you in. It traps you and makes you suddenly become culpable in a way. It was the great trick of Camus’ work and Koch does a remarkable job of it here. An omniscient narration would’ve left us wondering why on earth we were hearing from these caustic, nasty people – but putting us inside Paul’s mind makes it so that we can’t discount these people, because they’re now inherently more human.
Plus, Koch puts a reader at ease right away. The second sentence – “I won’t say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there” – feels like the sort of demure thing someone might say to you conversationally as they start a story. Which is exactly the point: we now feel as though we’re just having a conversation, catching up over a drink, hearing Paul’s latest tale.
But as the novel goes on, you feel that clammy sweat on the back of your neck. There’s that sense that something isn’t right, that you missed the moment when you should’ve slipped away and now… now the night’s going to get weird real fast. And Koch just keeps turning the screws. He indulges in a bit of that drip-drip reveal thing but he doesn’t really make you wait too long for the payoff. He’s not here to ratchet up the tension regarding the question of “what happened?” but rather to ratchet up the unease of “what happens next?” So when Paul is looking at his son’s phone and he watches a video, but we don’t know the content… we’re not clamoring to know what it was. There is the sense that it will be revealed to us in due time but tangentially we have somewhere else to go first, another story that must be told in order to make this make sense. It’s the sensation of someone building up the courage to finally address a topic that’s been on his mind – you don’t want to push because then you might not get to find out.
Once we do find out, though, about the video – and, in turn, the reason this dinner is taking place – the tension remains. And the reader realizes that we’re not just dealing with a well-tuned thriller but rather a serious contemplation of some heavy moral issues. I won’t go into the details because they’re a) spoilers and b) well worth discovering on your own… but I will say that you’re forced to make some uncomfortable split-second mental decisions while reading this book.
I am, full disclosure, not a parent. I don’t intend to be one for some time – but I would like to be one someday. And having seen my parents go to bat for me, for my sister… having seen other parents do the same for their kids… hell, having seen my boss change in indescribable but wonderful ways as a result of becoming a dad… there’s a sense that we, we would do anything for our children. Right? Wouldn’t we? We want to protect our children – but how can we best do that? What’s best for them, for us, for them and us?
And this, by the way, is really only one topic (although it feeds into the others) of hot-button social commentary that comes up in this novel. Politics, inequality, homelessness, adoption, conspicuous consumption, education… they all show up here and they’re all given enough attention that a reader cannot but project their own thoughts into the discussion. And as you’re doing that, you’re siding with either Paul & Claire or Serge & Babette – or, the third option, siding against both, which is entirely valid considering what happens.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending these characters. They are, all four of them, varying degrees of despicable. And some (I won’t say who) might even have some real serious issues. But I didn’t find this book to be a situation where we were following unpleasant characters as a sort of flagellation, nor were they so unpleasant that it was it a struggle to empathize. They’re quite human, almost too much so – because we want to say “oh, no, these people are ridiculous, no one acts like that.” But go sit down in any moderately swanky restaurant in a major city. Guaranteed you’ll see some version of each of these four main characters. Guaranteed.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The weight of the novel doesn’t really sink in until about a third of the way through – a pacing problem of sorts, making the first third a strange existential “okay is this just an uncomfortable dinner?” story. But once it has its hooks in you, it’s nearly impossible to put the book down. It does not demand your attention, but like that shadowy and gregarious Camusian fellow at the bar, it draws it nonetheless. And the last moment of the novel – the last page, really (at least in the US paperback pagination) – is utterly chilling. But sometimes its hard to hide who we are and what we believe. Scary as those things might be.