I don’t even know where to begin with The Dinner, by Herman Koch. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s had this reaction to the international bestseller. It’s a book that at first seems to follow a simple premise, but then suddenly takes some unexpected turns. It’s the sort of book that’s hard to talk about without giving too much away. And yet it’s also the sort of story that illicits strong feelings and a need to discuss. I was lucky. My husband had read the book before me and was sitting right next to me when I finished it. But because you may not have read it yet, I’ll be very careful about what I reveal here.
Simply put, the The Dinner is about two couples — two brothers and their wives — who meet for dinner in an upscale Dutch restaurant. Brother Serge is running for Prime Minister, and brother Paul (the narrator) is a teacher on “non active.” Over appetizers, they talk about movies and food and such, but by the time they get to the more substantial part of the meal, discussion turns to serious matters that affect their sons: a situation they’ve been involved in related to a police investigation and how they propose to deal with it. Seems simple, right? But because the story is told from Paul’s perspective, it starts to become apparent that maybe things aren’t as clear cut as he presents them.
I began to read The Dinner just as details in the Steubenville rape case were beginning to surface. Soon after, news of other acts of violence committed by young people took hold of the media. So it’s no surprise that one question kept popping up as I read: What would you do if your child were accused of committing a serious crime? My initial answer was “My child would never do anything like that.” I wonder how many other parents have the same thought? I wonder how many are wrong. The novel certainly makes you think about how our behaviour influences that of our children and what our role should be when we’re put in the position to defend them.
It’s a superbly written novel. If you like books that are fairly linear, straightforward and finish off with a nice clean ending, this one may not be for you. Not far into the book I found myself beginning to question the narrator and I eventually got to quite dislike him. For some people, it’s hard to read a book with an unlikable protagonist, but for me the fact that I had this reaction was a clear sign of Herman Koch‘s skill as a writer.