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Herman Koch: The Dinner (Atlantic)

My Dinner With Andre has one of the most unexciting premises for a motion picture yet devised, and still turns out to be riveting cinema.

Dutch author Herman Koch has pulled off a similar trick, making a tense psychological thriller out of an evening in a restaurant.

Not allowing for flashbacks, the story takes place over approximately four hours, during which two brothers and their wives meet in a pretentious restaurant in Amsterdam to discuss the behaviour of their teenage sons. Both 15, Peter and Claire's son, Michel, and Serge and Babette's son, Rick, have been seen on CCTV footage in a Crimewatch-style programme killing a homeless person. The police haven't identified the culprits, but their parents can tell who it is, and over an awkward and ill-tempered meal they decide what steps are to be taken.

Koch's intention to satirise the bourgeoisie is evident from the outset, with this ridiculously over-priced restaurant and its tiny servings on huge plates, the maitre d' informing the diners of the provenance of every item of food in front of them. It's not so much that we know where the plot is going, but we recognise the satirical milieu. Koch, though, is clever, and has actually been inching towards something quite different.

Peter's brother, Serge, is lined up to be a candidate for prime minister in the forthcoming election. He's superficial and full of himself, and Peter, who's narrating the story, seems by far the more reasonable and grounded of the two. But the deeper we get into the tale, the more apparent it becomes that Peter has some serious issues. His unconditional support for his son stops being quite so admirable and becomes, instead, a source of worry. And, as we get a clearer idea of what her life entails, Claire's stature grows in inverse proportion to her husband's, by which point we're dying to know how the story will resolve itself.

To what extent we get the children we deserve, and how much thicker blood is than water, are compelling questions. By stripping his characters layer by layer, and playing with his readers' sympathies, Koch achieves dramatic and darkly comic results.

EIBF, August 24. For details go to www.edbookfest.co.uk or call 0845 373 5888

THE DINNER

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Food and drink

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