Review: The Dinner; Herman Koch

A dark novel of family, politics and protecting someone you love… (3 stars)

Source- review copy

Atlantic Books- August 2012, Dutch version first published in December 2008

Kindle edition- 352 pages

‘The Dinner’ has been a massive best-seller in Holland and thanks to a praiseworthy review in ‘The Economist’ and some other notable British press, has garnered quite a lot of hype in the UK recently too. Comparisons to other high-ranking books including ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ (which I loved) and ‘The Slap’ (which I despised...) made me wonder which side of the fence I would sit on when it came to reading this novel.

Honestly? I’m still puzzling over whether or not I actually enjoyed this book. Though it didn’t quite suck me in as much as I had anticipated and I don’t believe it warrants all the buzz, I did find it to be a strangely intriguing read that held my attention to the very end.

Set in Amsterdam, The Dinner in effect takes place across the course of one evening, though flashbacks are interspersed within the narrative. It focuses on four diners at an upmarket city restaurant, who have met with the imperative need to discuss something important relating to their children. Over dinner, the subject matter is finally uncovered and what was initially quite a pleasant dinner between family members, unexpectedly takes a decidedly darker turn.

The book definitely has its charms. As far as unreliable narrators go, Paul Lohman, the narrator in this novel, excels. The reader feels some degree of empathy for him at the beginning of the book, then as events unfold you are left questioning the man’s grip on reality and undoubtedly how he and his wife’s own ethics and behaviour have impacted that of their son, whose acts (along with his cousins) lie at the heart of this story. Paul alludes to specific events in both the past and present, yet refuses to elaborate on them, so as a reader you wonder what is true and what isn’t. You also begin to realise that he has some rather disturbing attributes within his own psyche.

Speaking of characters, I actually began this book feeling quite indifferent to the majority of them, yet at the end found myself disliking the main four intensely, given the events that were eventually unveiled and the characters refusal to address them directly. I suppose because this novel began in quite a languid fashion and seemed to be veering more towards a ‘comedy of manners’ if you will, then all of a sudden descended into a crime/psychological thriller, it left me feeling a bit unsettled overall. I still don’t quite know how to define this book, truth be told.

The pace of this book is slow. Ploddingly slow at times, yet for some reason I kept on reading, mostly drawn by a curiosity as to how things would eventually pan out. The event that is meant to shock the reader is undeniably disturbing and the pace does speed up a notch at that point, but I suppose given other books that I have read, or perhaps films I have watched, it did not quite have the impact on me as a reader that it should have done. Maybe I am just becoming desensitised to some of these darker subject matters? Frightening thought.

If you are looking for an outstanding, riveting read with a sparkling plot and some great characters, then I have to say that this is probably not it. However, if you are looking for an undemanding read that poses some interesting questions and challenges middle class family values with some degree of dysfunctionality at its core, then ‘The Dinner’ is unquestionably a novel to add to your list. I have to say, that I did enjoy this more than ‘The Slap,’ though that isn’t a particularly difficult task!

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One response to “Review: The Dinner; Herman Koch

  1. Pingback: October Reading Analysis | my good bookshelf·

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