We were going out to dinner.
With quite an obvious opening line for the title, Herman Koch’s The Dinner focusses on a single evening in time – a meeting in a restaurant between two brothers and their wives to discuss what to do with their criminal children.
Reading more like a play than a novel, The Dinner is divided into the five courses of the top-quality restaurant meal – Aperitif, Appetizer, Main, Dessert and Digestif. As the story unfolds and the audience are slowly exposed to the horrific crime that the two sons committed, you come to realise that all Koch’s characters are morally bankrupt. Under the surface of middle-class respectability (a soon-to-be Prime Minister, a history teacher and two (apparent) stay-at-home mothers) lies a bleak undercurrent of violence, selfishness and the propensity to do anything for self-preservation.
The first-person narrative style allows you to enter the perspective of one of the fathers and exposes the audience to his particularly skewed view of the world and the concept of justice. Koch’s choice of extreme protagonist therefore leaves the audience unable to connect to or fully understand the motives of the characters and some readers may find it uncomfortable reading a novel where absolutely none of the primary characters are even likeable.
Personally, I found the freedom to explore these personas, away from emotional bias, disturbingly compelling. The Dinner may not become an immediate favourite but it certainly offers ideas and creates discussion. Koch explores a world where sociopaths hide behind their social status, creating depth in the shallowest of creatures. Whilst the content and outcome were, for me, totally reprehensible, the compulsion to read on is electric and would make it a fantastic book club read.
Where Koch might fall down is the social and political messages woven throughout The Dinner. Some just didn’t quite hit the mark and felt forced. For example the concept of nature and nurture is explored and yet the decision to attribute the narrator (Paul) and his son’s motives to a biological construct undermined the horror of their behaviour. I felt that in separating them from the ‘norm’ was a way of justifying their thought processes. Keeping it unresolved would have created much more threat and unsettlement for the reader in my opinion, emphasised the centre of this thriller.
The Dinner is an interesting read, suspenseful and full of twists. Focussed on a snapshot evening, the audience reaction to events develops and changes as you become more exposed to the characters you are reading about. One evening, two families, a plethora of secrecy.