Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

If you like your literature served up in sickly sweetness, classic fairytale arcs, loveable characters and happy endings, this is not the book for you. The Dinner is an unsettling and sometimes confronting read.

Definitely on the savoury side, many-layered with challenging flavours and textures.

Ever eaten something you can’t identify and then realised you might be better off not knowing anyway? That sums up The Dinner for me … intriguing enough to keep me reading, but disconcerting enough that I wasn’t sure if I really wanted the secrets revealed. I sensed the truth would leave a bad (moral) taste in my mouth.

The Dinner, Herman Koch, currently reading, now reading, book club


From Book Depository:

“It’s a summer’s evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love. Skewering everything from parenting values to pretentious menus to political convictions, this novel reveals the dark side of genteel society and asks what each of us would do in the face of unimaginable tragedy.”

The drama emerges from the betrayal of that unspoken social contract underlying fancy dinners. You know, the tacit promise you make: that conversation will be lighthearted and fun, the experience enjoyed by all. In this case, while the wait staff and other diners keep their end of the bargain, our party of four dives into the “elephant in the room”, the conversation they have to have. And it all goes pear-shaped.

From the get-go, our protagonist/narrator Paul Lohman reveals himself as unreliable. Despite the window he shares into his interior thinking, he makes omissions and drip-feeds the story at his own (excruciatingly slow) pace.  He’s totally unreliable. And unlikable. His contempt for his older, more successful brother. His intolerance of the restaurant staff and his manipulation of, well, everyone and everything.

There are no characters to like, none to warm to and hope for … just a ginormous secret to unfold, dissect and digest between the aperitif and digestif courses of a single dinner.

Inch by inch, the secret is revealed and Paul’s own chequered story (adding more layers to his unreliability). Along the way he observes, criticises and second guesses those closest to him. In social parlance, it’s known as “eating your own”.

The writing is detailed and insightful. Herman Koch is a master of the simile:

“Yet there was something else, something different about her this time, like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”

“I let go of the pump as well now. I registered a sense of fatigue. And regret. It was the same fatigue and regret you feel when you miss a tennis ball. You were planning to smash it, but you swing hard and miss; the arm holding the racket meets no resistance and lashes wildly through the air.” 

“That is how I looked at life sometimes, as a warm meal that was growing cold. I knew I had to eat, or else I would die, but I had lost my appetite.” 

For me, the language is seductive. The Dinner was translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, and I think he’s done a cracking job.

Despite the sometimes claustrophobic setting and the narrator’s rantings and negative world view, I found myself drawn on through the story. Sometimes, the author let me forget there was a horrific crime at the centre of the narrative as I got tied up in the day-to-day of the characters. But the secret soon loomed large again and I remembered why we were all here (it’s not to eat).

The story questions how far you’d go for family. What are you prepared to do to protect those you love? What are you prepared to sacrifice? For everyone at this table, the answer is different. Therein lies the tale.

Paul Lohman contends that, “A happy family can survive a shipwreck.” For me, The Dinner is more a car-crash read than a shipwreck … a slow-motion disaster that’s shocking and graphic and unsettling, which is exactly why you can’t turn away.

Definitely worth the read … unless you have a literary sweet-tooth.

NOTE: For me this was a book club read. Our book club sources all our books (at no cost) as kits from our local library. 🙂



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