Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The dinner: a novel is an eerie read that becomes more horrific over the course of the meal. While it’s true that the characters have dinner at a fancy restaurant, The dinner has as much to do with food as Die hard has to do with Christmas. It’s the backdrop but has little to do with the plot.
Since the novel was translated into English, I will give the benefit of the doubt that the occasional clunkiness of the writing is due to the translation. So, I will set aside discussing the writing itself.
As far as the story goes, it starts off slow and the reader is trying to figure out what exactly is going on along with the main character Paul. Paul and his wife are meeting his brother and his wife for dinner but with his brother’s political aspirations, dinner is as much about image as the purpose of that dinner if not more. The reader realizes as the night progresses, along with Paul, that the agenda is to discuss the poor decisions and bad behavior of their teenage kids and how to deal with it. But they have anything but a frank discussion and from Paul’s memories it is clear that he and his brother have a rocky relationship.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
The manner in which the truth of what the sons did unfolds is presented in a meandering way. Small, unclear pieces begin to fill in and then as more pieces are add, the shock value only continues to increase until it surpasses any additional meaning and the reader becomes numb to the facts as the parents try to resume their typical lives as if nothing happened. The sons, it’s revealed, murdered a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM machine that they wanted to use; the verbally and physically abused her before killing her and it was filmed by a grainy security camera, as well as a cell phone by the brother’s adopted son who was now blackmailing the boys for money. While their actions themselves are horrific, it’s almost more shocking the extent that Paul, his wife, and his brother’s wife go to scheme and protect the boys working against the brother who wants to come clean so he can be elected Prime Minister. This family certainly has issues and they are well conveyed.
The entire novel consists of one evening of the four parents having dinner at the fancy restaurant. All additional scenes are Paul’s memories as he contemplates how they got to this point and his strained relationship with his brother. It makes sense in a way for the setting to be such a public venue where they are on display but it is odd as it’s revealed what the true topic of discussion, although it’s clear that no one wants to actually talk about what their sons did.
At times, it felt too much but I felt compelled to read on, but it continues to get more and more awful. Paul is violent, even towards his brother, and his son is following in his footsteps. This makes him a difficult first-person narriator to read. However, in the end, he pulls back and shows maturity in knowing that he must have restraint despite what others expect from him.
Recommended: For anyone who can’t get enough of shocking dramas and escalating situations. There’s lots of violence and physical abuse as the novel progresses, with quite descriptive passages, which aren’t for everyone. Most readers probably won’t enjoy this novel but it’s a creative idea so I will look into Koch’s other books at some point.