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[572] The Dinner – Herman Koch

dinner

” At that point, my brother coughed and cleared his throat. He sat up straight, then leaned over the table–as though he were searching for the microphone. That’s exactly what it looked like, I thought to myself. In all his movements he was suddenly the national politician again, the shoo-in to be our country’s next leader, and he was about to put in her place a woman in the audience in some provincial union hall. ” (Ch.13, p.78)

The Dinner is labeled a thriller, being compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but it impresses me as neither. It’s literary fiction with an overpowering suspense. The actual story spans over just one evening, punctuated by flashbacks, as two couples, brothers and in-laws, meet at a high-end restaurant for dinner. The book, divided into sections of a meal, begins with drinks and dark satire. Much is made of the pretentiousness of the establishment and the preposterousness of its food. The narrator, Paul Lohman, is cynical, snarky, but observant—feeling an aversion to the evening ahead—he is obviously not the one who decides to dine in such claustrophobic atmosphere in which one is hemmed in by server who offers exaggeratedly excessive information on the food.

Top restaurant’s tactic, he told me once, is to actually force as much wine as possible down your throat, wine they sell for seven times what the importer charges for it, and that’s why they always wait so long between bringing the appetizer and taking orders for the entrée: people will order more wine out of pure boredom… (Ch.9, p.48)

The restaurant is what befits a rising star in politics like Paul’s brother. Serge Lohman is the leader of the opposition party, a shoo-in for prime minister. Contrived to maintain a balance between public charisma and privacy, Serge often struggles to keep the public property and the private circumstance separate. This is exactly what I find absurd about this dinner, purposed to discuss serious family issues, that takes place in such high-profile atmosphere. Paul finds everything about his brother repellent, from his handshake to table manner to his smile. He loathes how Serge dismisses his family and children to the point that they become a mere backdrop of his political campaign. Even the adoption of a child from Africa, to Paul, is a publicity stunt.

What has brought about this dinner is not revealed at first (not for about 120 pages). But the gentle hum of small polite talk gives way to disclosure of secrets, which involve a terrible crime of the couples’ children. The cousins’ partnership in the horrific act has punctuated the families’ insulated world and threatens a possible police investigation. The details and facts are drawn out vividly over the main course of the meal (pun intended). This is when the dinner slowly mounts the culinary climax and civility disintegrated.

But no one at the table spoke a word. Sometimes people allow silences like that to fall—when they don’t feel like saying the obvious. If Serge had told a joke, a joke that started with a question, a comparable silence would probably have ensued. (Ch.41, p.265)

The Dinner is unsettling, disturbing, and misanthropic. The slow, meandering turn of the story is neither boring nor bothersome, as some readers have complained. What appeals to me is the carefully calibrated revelations of its unreliable and increasingly unsettling narrator grows ever more intense and neurotic with the turning of pages. The book is not thriller in the sense that it involves a manhunt. It’s a tautly written family drama that raises the issues of modern parenthood: stubborn defense of our children, and the deep compulsion to believe they cannot do wrong.

292 pp. Hoarth. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

9 Responses

  1. I was delighted with this book, in the way that every now and again I had to stop and say “What??? What the hell?”. You just never knew what the narrator was going to reveal next, which is probably why it was compared to Gone Girl. But the nuances of sibling rivalry, of spousal rivalry, of the blinders you put on with your kids. It was a very perceptive little read. And for anyone out there that like audios, this one was phenomenally narrated.

  2. I am listening to this one on audio right now, so I didn’t read your review in its entirety. I find it interesting how much can be discovered over a simple dinner. I’m enjoying it so far…

    • My only question is why anyone would have discussed such private matter in a bustling fancy restaurant when service is over-attentive?

  3. I wasn’t aware of The Dinner, till I heard about it on the bookreportradio(dot)com over the weekend. It’s a radio show where the host, Elaine, speaks about a new selection of books every week, and she played a piece from the audio book…just enough to get me interested in finding it! It sounds so unusual, and I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice – seemed well done. I thought if you enjoy reading, you may enjoy her show too(the schedule and stations are listed on the site if you want to take a listen). I’ve read so many mixed feelings on this one, but your review has made my mind up to give it a try. Thanks.

    • It’s definitely an unusual book. It caught my attention at the bookstore. It all begins with an evening out to a fancy restaurant. But soon the tension, slow churned, just sucks me in. Bit by bit the real purpose of this meal is revealed and the result is just shocking.

      Thank you for pointing out the book radio show.🙂

  4. The audio version of this one was terrific as well. Haven’t written a review yet but really enjoyed it as well.

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