Title: The Dinner
Author: Herman Koch
No. of Pages: 304
Genre: Literary Fiction
Bottom Line: Quietly, starkly and slowly, the story reveals itself in messy layers that heighten the suspense and increase the sense of familial desperation which makes this such a powerful read.
“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 polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse — the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. 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.”
Thoughts: The Dinner is the type of novel in which giving away even the barest of plot points would be to upset the tightly woven balance between superficial banalities and the darker undercurrents of tension and desperation that occur in the shared meal between family members. The story gains its power in the slow and steady release of key details, surprising twists, and other unexpected moments, while the swell of rising emotions among the dinner guests mirrors a reader’s own sense of uneasiness about the direction of the story. The cold brusqueness of many of the characters only adds to this sense of pending doom. The entire novel culminates in scenes that are chilling in their brutality while also stunning in the depths of parental love all four parents display.
In The Dinner, Mr. Koch does not cater to an inattentive audience. Rather, he forces a reader to take an active role in the story, reading between the words unspoken and body language described through Paul’s observations. In particular, Paul’s intense protection of his son and wife, while apparent in each word stated, is even more obvious in that which is left unstated, something that is simultaneously unsettling and surprisingly admirable. His deep regard for his right to privacy, as well as that of his wife and son, is indicative of this need to safeguard his family against all ills while simultaneously skewering the prurient nature of modern society. The Dinner is as much social commentary as it is a story about a family in crisis, but Mr. Koch makes a reader work to understand the story’s duality.
While The Dinner is heavy with European references – as one would expect with a Dutch author, a story revolving around two families firmly entrenched in the Dutch infrastructure, and a setting that can only happen in Amsterdam – there is a generic quality to it that resonates with readers around the globe. The urge to protect one’s offspring crosses all boundaries regardless of social, economic, religious, political, racial, and any other classification. It is this profoundly mammalian instinct which initially grabs the reader’s attention and a main reason for the story’s worldwide popularity.
The Dinner is the best type of thinking man’s novel; quiet and unassuming, it relies not on action and adventure but the emotions and thoughts of its characters to drive forward the story. The hints of anxiety glimpsed within each character’s mannerisms as well as the uniquely human components regarding parental involvement heighten a reader’s emotional awareness. All of the elements blend together into a taut, highly nuanced literary thriller in which the thrills come from each uncovered layer of this meticulously written expose on the relationship between parents and their children and their obligations to each other.