Who ordered the lobster?

“We are going out to dinner.”

Already this year, I have ventured to read my first German author and now here I am reading my first Dutch author, Herman Koch. Apparently well known in his own country, this is his first book that has been translated into English. The premise of the novel is simple – the story is told over the course of a single meal and is divided into five sections: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert and digestif. From the moment they enter the restaurant to the moment the bill arrives, I was hooked.

There are four people at this dinner. Paul, our narrator with more issues than a glossy magazine. Claire, his destermined, intelligent wife. Serge, Paul’s brother and potentially the next Prime Minister. And Babette, his wife who arrives to the dinner clearly having just been crying.

The four have gathered for a reason, although it isn’t strictly very clear at first what that reason is. As it goes on, events unfold and their meeting is explained. They both have teenage sons, and those sons have been caught on CCTV doing something horrifying. The footage has been shown on the news, all over the country, but only the four parents have identified the culprits. They now need to work out what they should do about it, how they can protect their sons and themselves, and how to keep the family together.

I can’t really say any more than that without ruining the main plot, but it’s certainly a gem. The characters are very interesting, all much darker than one first realises. In fact, the whole novel slides rather quickly into a black hole and never quite gets out of it again. There are naturally flashbacks to moments in their past, and the end has a “what happened next” feel about it, but the vast majority of the action takes place in this very fancy restaurant with the staff buzzing around, trying to keep this important politician happy.

Paul is a great narrator, although it quickly becomes clear that he is disturbed. The reasons quickly become evident once the main course arrives and his story is explored more deeply. Serge and Babette are sympathetic characters, trying to fight back their egotism and desperation to succeed for the sake of their son and nephew. I actually like all four of the main characters (five, if you count Paul and Claire’s son Michel who also appears briefly), although that’s not to say that I would particularly want to go for dinner with them. Still, I find the good guys are rarely the best characters. (Case in point: I will insist to the death that Dolores Umbridge is the greatest thing in the Harry Potter books, and Aornis Hades from the Thursday Next series is a true masterpiece.)

This is an intense novel about family and politics, justice and ethics, innocence and guilt. There are some great discussions on the nature of victims and the arguments surrounding capital punishment. The thread of unhappy families weaves throughout the narrative, too.

This may be the best book I have read this year – at no point was I bored or wished it to hurry along. The narrative is clever in that so little action actually happens, and that mere seconds take pages to occur, but that is the nature of small moments like this. Our minds fill with so many thoughts in every moment that to explain them all would take a while. Koch manages that nicely. The premise of setting it over a meal is also a beautiful touch, as you know when it has to end, and feel with the characters as they try to decide at what point it would be best to discuss the thing they have all come to discuss.

Skip dinner, try this instead.