Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Strange and disturbing but quite possibly brilliant, The Dinner by Herman Koch is a grippingly readable novel that gets under your skin and stays there.

Recently translated from the original Dutch, The Dinner has been compared to controversial bestsellers Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Like these novels, the central premise is easily summarised: two couples are meeting in a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam to discuss the terrible thing their teenage sons have done. But the real horror of the story isn’t the sickening crime the boys have committed – it’s something much more subtle, that sneaks up on you slowly, unexpectedly. 

The story is told through the eyes of Paul Lohman, an ex-teacher with a bitter disdain for everything his bother Serge – a charismatic politician, tipped to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, and depicted as a pompous fool – represents. For the first half of the novel, the conversation skirts around the issue they are there to discuss. Paul, Serge, and their wives Claire and Babette spend most of the evening engaging in fairly ridiculous small talk, all the while secretly trying to gauge who knows what about their sons’ crime.

The novel is divided up into sections named for each course of the meal, almost like acts in a play. The fussy proceedings of the dinner are described in lengthy detail that is somehow both hilarious and tiresome. Paragraphs are dedicated to the pretentiousness of the fare (“The lamb’s-neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil with rocket… the sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria”), and to the infuriating way the maitre d’ uses his pinky finger to point at each element of the dish he is serving, and to Paul’s anxious internal debate about which appetiser to order, and what his choice would signal to the rest of the table. This structuring device and the close observations that flesh it out have the effect of slowing down the action to an almost unbearable pace, thereby heightening the suspense. It also makes the sinister undercurrent of the story seem more chilling, simmering beneath such a fancy and pristine surface, and veiled in a peculiar and acerbic kind of comedy.

Like The Slap and We Need to Talk about Kevin, some readers will be disturbed by the lack of likable characters, the moral heaviness and the coldness with which the story is told. As the meal progresses, layers and layers of disquiet are peeled away to reveal the true darkness of the situation. Through flashbacks, we increasingly realise how unhinged Paul is; that he is, in fact, that classic literary device of the unreliable narrator. Shocking incidents are recalled in a calm, untroubled voice, and what we quickly come to understand is that the parents aren’t much better than the kids. Thus the uncomfortable questions are asked: how far would you go to protect your child, and how much of a child’s moral behaviour can be attributed back to the parents?

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