Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
The Dinner: Herman Koch, September 3—5, 2016
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊
Two brothers and their wives have dinner together to discuss how to address the fact their respective children have committed a heinous crime on CCTV but have not, as yet, been identified.
The Dinner is divided into the sections of a meal: aperitif through to dessert. Narrated by one of the brothers, probably two-thirds of the content is in flashback with the balance set at the meal. Paul is an ex-teacher, while Serge is expected to become Prime Minister after the election.
The book isn’t really about the crime, and definitely not the fallout. In fact, the discussion at the table doesn’t reach the incident itself until dessert. Much more, it’s Paul’s musings on his own past, the way he and Claire have raised Michel, and what it says about them now. Prevailing themes are happiness, secrets and heredity.
The Dinner has been compared by many to Gone Girl (The Wall Street Journal, The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan and Salon among others) but the two books have little in common besides the sociopathic characters leading the cast. For all that there are twists and surprises, Koch makes no attempt to emulate the Flynn-esque red herrings or mystique. Events may unfold in two time streams, but the storytelling is much more interested in why? than what?. To brand The Dinner as the European Girl is to miss the point of one or both books; The Dinner isn’t a poor man’s Girl at all, but a rich explorative entity of its own.
As the novel progresses, Paul unravels from his genteel facade to quite a sinister, menacing presence. The distinction between dialogue, action and thought blurs and the narration becomes more unreliable. In many respects, The Dinner shares more in common with American Psycho.
The message is a little confused; it flits between macro statements about human nature and a specific set of circumstances within the confines of a particular family set up. It’s unclear if we’re seeing the brutal reality of human nature, or something that flows against the tide. Koch puts a lot of work into creating a multi-layered dilemma but doesn’t see it through, though there is still plenty of food for thought.
The Dinner serves up a delicious web of divided loyalties and disturbed individuals, with a writing style that whets your appetite from page 1 and keeps you going until the very end.