By Saskia Noort, translated by Paul Vincent. Bitter Lemon Press.
Karen, her husband Michel and their two young daughters move out of Amsterdam for a more rural lifestyle in an upmarket village. Karen works as a freelance graphic designer from home while the girls are at school, soon becoming restless and lonely as Michel works very long hours as a film producer and their city friends gradually fade out of their lives. She finds it hard to make friends with the other mothers at the school gate, but eventually succeeds in her “girlfriend offensive” and becomes close to the well-off but hard-drinking Hanneke. Soon, Karen, Hanneke and two other mothers whose children are at the same school become part of a “dinner club” in which they socialise once a week while their husbands look after their children. And boy, do they drink! Karen is the only one of the women who has a regular source of income; the other wives are supported by their successful husbands and can pursue a life of tennis, shopping and other pleasures of the rich and idle.
Naturally, all is not what it seems, and as the book opens, one of the fathers of this social group dies in a fire at his home. Karen reflects on the initial friendship of the families and their gradual disintegration as alcohol removes judgement and restraint, as previously hidden tensions and hypocrisies come to the surface. Another member of the group dies by falling from a balcony window in an Amsterdam hotel. Karen is convinced that neither death is an accident, but the rest of the club pull together and ostracise her. She becomes desperate, having embarked on a hasty affair with one of the fathers in the club, Simon, who seems to have everyone in his power.
Eventually, Karen joins forces with the most appealing character in the book, the idiosyncratic woman detective Dorian Jager, who is investigating the case, or trying to. Karen comes to a turning point where she has to decide what is most important – finding out what has happened to her dead friends whatever the cost to her and her own family, or whether her doubts are in her imagination and she should stay loyal to those who are left. At the same time, the author constantly shifts the reader’s perception of the roles of the different members of the group, so that the eventual truth is something of a surprise.
The Dinner Club is an amusing but perceptive satire of the shallow, materialistically aspirational life. It’s slight, quick and easy to read, and is no work of great literature — but it leaves a strong impression in its modern approach to the old themes of corruption and redemption. I particularly like the character of Dorian, and hope that she will be reprised in a future novel. She has some echoes of Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope, but is a truly eccentric maverick in her own right.
Another novel by Saskia Noort has been translated into English, Back to The Coast (link goes to my Euro Crime review).