This is all you need to know: two Dutch couples—two brothers and their wives—go out for dinner at a swank Amsterdam restaurant that serves dishes like crayfish with “chanterelles from the Vosges” while staff scrape and bow in the direction of one of the brothers, Serge, a prominent politician. Table talk begins with civil banalities about work and movies before moving, with the stealth of a SS-N-25 Onyx missile, to the real reason for the gathering: how the in-laws are going to deal with an incident implicating their two 15-year-old sons.
To reveal more of Herman Koch’s riveting, unforeseeable plot would rob readers of the chilling pleasure of watching the lives of his privileged, flawed characters unfurl and then detonate. What can safely be said, however, is that the novel’s narrator—the complex, resentful brother Paul—introduces a new spin on the unreliable narrator trope: Paul, a teacher on “non-active” leave, is pure, unmedicated id as he exposes brutal truths about family, social failure, casual violence, mental illness and the primal lengths to which parents will go to protect their children. What begins as acerbic, if occasionally twee, social satire turns into a dark lesson on humanity before slowly imploding into an oleander origami that never can be put together again.
The Dinner is a book you won’t want to put down. But when it’s finished, you might wonder if you’ve just consumed the very sort of clever meal the novel ridicules. The pleasure is all in the experience, which is wonderful. But it also means that after it’s over, you’ll crave something more.
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