Paul and Claire are meeting Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner. They do not want to go. Immediately I wanted to know the family history. Serge seems like he’s been steamrolling Paul all their lives and yet Paul knows he won’t skip out on the meeting. He fantasizes about all the things he can do to get the upper hand during the encounter while at the same time knowing exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s going to make him feel angry and small.
Suddenly the book takes a hard turn and Paul tells us he snuck into his fifteen year old son’s room to snoop through his phone. He watches a video, his suspicions are confirmed and he doesn’t know what is going to happen.
And back to dinner.
I was completely on board with the brother plot and then was given the son plot for just a second and was all “Wait! Go back to that!” But Paul is telling this story and has little regard for the reader. His narcissism would never make him pause to wonder if the reader wants different details. Because we are on his side, we will of course let him tell the story his way – the correct way.
Throughout the dinner, the four circle around the topic of their sons. Paul doesn’t know how much information the other three have. He’s not even sure what his wife knows and if he’s protecting her or if she’s keeping things from him.
Paul eventually lets the reader know what Michael has been up to and how Serge’s sons Rick and Beau are involved.
The relationships here are fascinating. Family is everything, but Paul is faced with dueling realities. Does his brother come first or his wife and son?
More information is slowly revealed to Paul while he also reveals his own knowledge to the reader. Very early on in this book I knew that something terrible had happened and something even worse would happen next.
Having the couples avoid or ignore everything builds tension, especially because the reader does not know the full details of what happened and also does not know what the characters know. Everyone is hiding details and I had a physical reaction throughout. It was the feeling of putting your arms out to try and stop something that you know you can’t stop. Watching a car accident as it unfolds. Waiting for a balloon to pop. Cringing and looking away, but not quite all the way because you want to know what happens.
While Paul tells the story of dinner and lets us in on what he knows and what he is figuring out about Michael, Rick and Beau, he nonchalantly reveals details about himself and I liked these parts the best. There are things that have happened that are incredibly disturbing but Paul presents them the same way he’d tell you his favorite color, the name of his third grade teacher or how old he was when he learned to ride a bike. It never occurs to him that anything would bother the reader because, again, we are on his side.
It was clear to me what was going to happen and Koch’s talent here is keeping the reader on board to see if there will be repercussions or a happy ending. I wasn’t sure how things would resolve but I had a horrid feeling that characters were going to get away with abhorrent acts. Even worse, maybe I would want them to get away with it.
Koch reveals events slowly and his narrator is so unreliable that it’s like watching ballet. I can’t tell if Paul believes what he is saying or not. I never felt like he was trying to convince the reader of anything because he has no reason to ever doubt that we’d be on his side. The narcissism is overwhelming but Koch writes Paul in such a way that there were times I didn’t feel disgust because Paul doesn’t. I loved it.
Major appreciation to Garrett for the translation.