Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Meet Paul Lohman; he is your narrator. He has arranged to have dinner at a posh (and overpriced) restaurant in Amsterdam along with his wife, Claire, his sister-in-law Babette, and her husband Serge; Paul’s older brother (a shoe-in to be the next Prime Minister of Holland) whom he detests. It’s all very civilised, except they’re not there to exchange niceties and the banalities of life. Each couple has a 15-year-old son who, together, have committed a horrific crime that was caught on camera and is now being looped on the evening news. The nation is both horrified and outraged and the images are too grainy to be able to identify the culprits. But they’re not too grainy for the Lohmans: Paul recognises his son Michel, and Serge, his son Rick. They need to act fast.

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This book is very subtly shocking. It’s not dramatic, yet in a way it is. As the cover states, it shows how far people will go to protect their loved ones, and through this, we learn about the nature of evil, about nature verses nurture and we examine to what extent we can blame parents for the misdeeds of their children. I’m not surprised if you’re right now thinking that’s sooo ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, but it’s actually not. Although I’ll admit to buying it because I thought it would indeed be another Shriver type book (I’m all over that kinda sh*t as you can see in my review of ‘The Good Father’).

The Dinner Courses

The Dinner Courses

The book is split into the five tedious and overtly fussy courses at this pretentious restaurant: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert, digestif. I thought Koch did a tremendous job capturing the pomp of the restaurant, and the ridiculousness of the Head waiter, and food is indeed central to the structure of the story.

Through his disdain of all the arrogance and pretention of this restaurant and his assessment of his brother and his wife, Paul gets you on his side from the get go. But then he slowly appears to unravel the horrifying layers, all the way down to the kernel of shocking truth. As the narrative progresses we learn of new secrets and we begin to question our alliance with Paul. You question everything he has told you until now, whether he really is in a position to pass moral judgement.

The Dinner

To go into further detail would spoil ‘The Dinner’ for those of you who are yet to read it so all I’ll say is that this book examines the effects of violence and what extent people will go to protect those they love.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Are our obligations only meant for our families, or do they extend to the wider good of humanity? This book also poses some very interesting questions about the nature of victimhood and that of the perpetrator, and also of course, about parenthood. The one small negative I have that I can actually tell you about is that the book was initially written in Dutch and has been translated into English. This was quite obvious to me in the beginning as the text felt a bit odd and stilted, but by the second and third chapters it had evened out and read a lot more evenly.

This is definitely the kind of book to be discussed at length, a book that can be quite divisive, and will help you learn a lot about your friends by the way in which they respond to the questions that arise. It is a novel that ends in a way that troubled me and has stayed with me for the past week since I’ve finished it. Read it so we can talk about it. If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts on the ending?? How would you react if these were your children in trouble?

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3 responses

  1. Really enjoyed ‘The Dinner’. The ease with which Koch manages to lure you into a sense of almost light heartedness at the beginning, in what is a very dark and disturbing novel, must be admired. Poses tough questions on whether you would adhere to your own ethical code if it proved to be an obstacle to the well being of your loved ones. Looking forward to the next course Koch serves up!

  2. Pingback: The Book Cover Wars: UK vs. USA – Part 2 | shelf life

  3. I just recently read it and I completely agree with your review. The characters you like in the beginning, you end up questioning and/or disliking in the end. It’s not an action packing thriller, but it was very shocking. I don’t have children, but I’d like to think I wouldn’t be like Paul and Claire.

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