A high-class meal provides an unlikely window into privilege, violence and madness.
Paul, the narrator of this caustic tale, initially appears to be an accomplished man who’s just slightly eccentric and prone to condescension: As he and his wife prepare for a pricey dinner with his brother and sister-in-law, he rhetorically rolls his eyes at wait staff, pop culture and especially his brother, a rising star in the Dutch political world. The mood is mysteriously tense in the opening chapters, as the foursome talk around each other, and Paul’s contempt expands. The source of the anxiety soon becomes evident: Paul’s teenage son, along with Paul’s brother’s children, was involved in a violent incident, and though the videos circulating on TV and YouTube are grainy, there’s a high risk they’ll be identified. The formality of the meal is undone by the parents’ desperate effort to keep a lid on the potential scandal: Sections are primly titled “Aperitif,” “Appetizer” and so on, but Koch deliberately sends the narrative off-menu as it becomes clear that Paul’s anxiety is more than just a modest personality tic, and the foursome’s high-toned concerns about justice and egalitarianism collapse into unseemly self-interest. The novel can be ineffectually on the nose when it comes to discussions of white guilt and class, the brothers’ wives are thin characters, and scenes meant to underscore Paul’s madness have an unrealistic vibe that show Koch isn’t averse to a gratuitous, melodramatic shock or two. Even so, Koch’s slow revelation of the central crisis is expertly paced, and he’s opened up a serious question of what parents owe their children, and how much of their character is passed on to them.
At its best, a chilling vision of the ugliness of keeping up appearances.