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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We Need to Talk About Daniel: THE GOOD FATHER by Noah Hawley; A Gushing Review

‘This is how it happens. There is nothing and then, suddenly, something. A family is making dinner, talking, laughing, and then the outside world muscles in.’

Dr. Allen, your son killed the next president of the United States.” – Ten words that no parent would ever wish to hear; words that no parent would ever even dream of hearing. Yet Dr Paul Allen, the narrator of this tale, ‘a man who had found contentment in life, happiness. A lucky man, who had come to expect good things’, is confronted with this reality in the middle of pizza-making with his second wife and their twin sons. Along with the rest of America, they watch the shocking news of the assassination of a charismatic Presidential candidate as it unfolds on their TVs. Minutes later, the Secret Service are at their front door revealing that the man arrested for the murder is Danny, the child of Paul’s first marriage.

Paul is instantly in denial, vehemently rejecting the possibility of his son’s guilt. A universe in which his son is able to commit murder is incomprehensible to him, and asking if Daniel is culpable is like asking ‘What if rain fell up instead of down?’ At one point, Daniel’s mother says ‘Danny shot Jesus’, as senator Seagram, though not black, was the fictional equivalent of Obama, a man who represented hope, a man loved by all.

Daniel’s actions spiral the lives of his family members into uncertainty and constant questioning, his father asking himself what he had done to make Daniel who he is, what could he have done differently?: ‘Was this what the rest of my life would be made of? Endless nights spent building alternate histories, running simulations, looking for a way out of the maze?’

Hawley explores the impact that divorce and absent parents have on children, questioning whether this core instability can extend into other parts of a person’s life. It is always too easy to point a finger at the parent, and they are always the ones that the public ultimately land up blaming and hating, ostracising them from society, allowing their shame to build a protective wall of ‘us’ and ‘them’, as if bad parenting were contagious.

Paul is not without his flaws, but his unrelenting devotion to his son (though perhaps now too late) is truly heart-breaking. Swearing that ‘his vindication would be my grail’ he does everything in his power to ‘save’ Danny. This soon develops into an obsession, him tirelessly collecting and collating all information related to the crime, him reading books on famous assassinations (McVeigh, Sirhan Sirhan, Hinckley) and sharing these details with the reader, him searching for similarities between these men and his son:

‘I had spent the last three months trying to compile the evidence, to add up all the moments from Danny’s childhood that could provide a diagnosis, a definitive answer as to who he was and why he did the things he did, and yet in life everything is open to interpretation. We see the past through the prism of our perception. When a man is indicted of a crime you review his life looking for patterns. Incidents that may have been meaningless before suddenly loom large. Look. He killed spiders. That must have been an early warning sign.

We are asked many questions through the course of this book. Who do we apportion the blame to? Is there even a need to do so? Can blame spread beyond the culprit himself?

The desire to know what leads a human being to commit a heinous crime like this, is what propels this narrative, is the reason why I found myself hooked onto every word of every page. Is it that part of us that feels alone and disconnected from the world that comes forth and does what was previously thought to be impossible? ‘A person, alone in the dark, disappears little by little, piece by piece’ until they reformulate into a different person. But then this: ‘Understanding the reason makes killing reasonable.’ Murder cannot be cleanly boxed up and categorised.

Ultimately disillusioned (and perhaps also delusional) does Danny do what he feels needs to be done, searching for his place in history? The lack of logic in his thinking and in the thinking of other seemingly intelligent men always has the ability to infuriate me, but evidently ‘the world is full of twenty-year-olds with too much in the way of balls and not enough sense. This is what young men are good for. Revolution and murder.’ That Danny doesn’t fit into the stereotypical psychological profile of a killer is important. Hawley plays with notions of nature, nurture, destiny and chance, never quite pinning down the reason why things have turned out as they have. Ambiguity is the tool of great writers; it is what gives novels lasting impact.

I. LOVE. THIS. BOOK. But then again, I knew I would. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my favourite books, and as this also works with themes of parenthood and innate vs. learned characteristics, that I would enjoy it was inevitable. I’m surprised this book hasn’t had more media attention; I honestly believe it to be an astonishing achievement. There are so many profound passages in it, sentences that provide great insight into the human mind and human motivations, that my list of pages to quote from grew too long to attempt both cohesion and concision. A book that I could not wait to finish yet was sad when I finally did. It did not disappoint on any level, I cannot recommend this enough. Read it.

So I’ll leave you with these two thoughts to ponder on:

  • ‘We’re not all put on this earth to do what’s right.’
  • ‘You can’t make a good person do bad things. You can’t change who they are fundamentally in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. That’s science fiction. The only thing that can change who we are is life.’