An unremarkable couple stand in an unremarkable pub drinking unremarkable beer. Their names are Paul and Claire. They’re bracing themselves, for they are about to go to dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Serge is a rising star in national politics, primed for the position of PM after the elections, which are only six months away. Paul has picked the restaurant (mere mortals will need to book months in advance but they keep a table back for ‘people like me’), for they need to have a serious discussion. Their fifteen year old sons have performed an unspecified and unspeakable act and the situation needs to be solved.
Dutch literature is an odd duck and rarely read outside of the country. And I get it. It’s not that it’s bad; I think you need to be of a certain mindset to appreciate the bleak outlook on human life and the rancid sex acts combined with a deeply ingrained Calvinism that doesn’t allow for much merriment. In that sense, this book is somewhat more light-hearted – though not much – than many others that sprung from the same well, although I will say it’s mercifully short on rancid sex scenes.
We quickly find out that Paul is an unreliable narrator. He’s also an asshole; Koch wastes no time in making that clear, though as the novel progresses we slowly discover just how unhinged he really is. Claire is a somewhat more enigmatic figure, more competent than Paul though never really fleshed out. Their son is a teenager, secretive, adored and much misunderstood by his parents. There’s something gleeful in the way Paul describes the awful act his son was involved in – he truly can’t believe his sweet son would do something so violent – but we gradually come to see that his son is only modeling his behaviour on his father. More than anything, Paul is flattered. And that’s the point; the novel isn’t so much about the crime the boys committed, but about their parents’ response. The just solution is never on the table; the words of Brock Turner’s father – that twenty minutes of action shouldn’t undo twenty years of good living – echo through the novel. They’ve created monsters and they don’t really care.
The novel’s conclusion is somewhat befuddling and the novel is unusually sardonic in its tone. It occasionally drags on; the meal the couples eat at the restaurant is is presented with great aplomb and in much detail, though the description of the place as Michelin-rated doesn’t really jibe with the fairly standard offerings that end up on their plates and the ominously hovering waiter, like a modern day Igor, doesn’t really seem to fit. I’m not sure I bought it, entirely, and it lacks finesse, but it was a fun and quick read for me.