The Dinner by Herman Koch

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The Dinner by Herman Koch
Buy The Dinner from Amazon.co.uk

Buy The Dinner from Amazon.com

Genre: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Page
Reviewed by Zoe Page
Summary: Family ties and a public crime bind two couples together, but with differences of opinion, not everyone can get their way in the aftermath. A little inappropriately funny and a lot thought-provoking.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Atlantic
ISBN: 978-1848873827

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Serge Lohman, presidential candidate, is not the kind of man to frequent the cafés of ordinary people, and so when his brother Paul and his wife Claire join Serge and wife Babette for dinner, it can only be at the fanciest of locales, and for 'fanciest' read poshest, snootiest, and most overpriced. And while they may be in Holland, going Dutch is not on the menu. This is not Serge’s story, however. It is Paul’s, and what he lacks in terms of income, power and influence compared to his brother, he more than makes up for with dry humour and astute observations.

And so, the couples gather. And they chit chat. And talk eventually turns to their sons. The two boys have committed a crime and that crime has now surfaced publically. There will be repercussions, but the four diners cannot agree on how to handle the situation. For some there are public images to consider, for others there are less superficial things to think about. With certain parties knowing only segments of the story, there are also revelations to negotiate. In the end, if doing what’s right for society and doing what’s right for the family do not marry up, there will need to be a winner and a loser at the table, and someone may need to be forcefully silenced to keep it that way.

This is an unusual and fascinating book set over the course of a dinner (from aperitif to digestif, for it is that kind of place). Paul narrates the courses, with several prolonged journeys into past events that help make sense of the present, and while I thought it was a slow chew to start with, I gobbled it up greedily towards the end. The characters are fleshed out well, with Paul being much more than Serge’s boring civilian brother, and Claire coming into her own as the story progresses.

The book is a translation from the Dutch, but I get the impression that the rather sterile, detached tone is a representation of the original style rather than something being lost in translation. Paul is a remote kind of guy who can sit back and narrate on surroundings without much emotion, and this lends itself well to the heinous acts of the story on which he is reflecting. In another world, the boys would have been caught and punished already, but these are teens from educated, middle class families, whose parents know how to play the system. The boys should have known better than to act the way they did – certainly they were brought up better than that – but now that it’s done the immediate issue is damage control to limit the fall out both for the boys and for the parents.

This book isn’t about an obviously amusing subject, and yet it’s wickedly funny in parts. Paul is an excellent narrator whose contempt for his brother is thinly concealed, and so even though there are more pressing issues to address, he cannot avoid little digs here and there. The circumstances under which he left his last job are also quite comical in a mildly inappropriate way, as is the ending when you cannot help but feel that justice has been served.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, and the cover did little to clue me in, but in the end I found it a highly original, thought provoking and entertaining read about feuding families, pretentious restaurants and the limits of acceptable behaviour. Whether or not you agree that what the boys did was utterly unforgivable, you’ll appreciate the different perspectives shown in reactions to it.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.

Like the way translations can introduce you to new (or new to you) writers? We have a list of Top Ten Books Not Originally Written In English

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