Sunday, 7 October 2012

Book review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Dutch author Herman Koch starts off with Paul and his wife Claire heading to dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Serge is tipped to be the next Prime Minister of The Netherlands, and there is no love lost between the brothers. Paul loathes the moulded baby-kissing politician his brother has become, Babette has committed herself to see her marriage through to the bitter end while Paul has the good fortune to have married Claire, the woman who is 'the reason for his happiness'. This uncomfortable dinner has been arranged so the parents can discuss the repercussions of a chilling act their children have committed.

This is a book about society and expectations, violence and retribution and the lengths people go to to do what is ‘right’ for their family.

What makes The Dinner so outstanding is the way in which Koch layers on details after details, slowly building tension as you, the reader, learn more about the couples, their children and their lives. Each twist and new revealment is subtle, believable, yet unexpected. You reach the end of each short chapter and you can’t stop yourself from flipping over the page. Not because there is some enticing cliff-hanger, but because you simply cannot wait to see what is going to happen next. Koch has divided the book according to the rituals of dinner; aperitif, entrée, dessert, lending the action a sense of heightened theatrical drama.

One of the reviews on the cover of the book describes The Dinner as ‘deliciously uncomfortable’, and that is exactly what it is. This is a disastrous dinner and a disastrous evening, and it is clearly going to be that way from the outset. As the reader, you revel in each horrible moment, even as they make you squirm.

What I particularly enjoyed about The Dinner is that none of the characters are cut-and-dry. You think you understand and sympathise with Paul and then you learn something about his past, or his attitude to his fellow men that makes you re-evaluate your opinion of him as a person. The obviously obnoxious and hateful brother to me became somewhat humanised and understandable. But it is the quiet and harmonious Claire who proves to be the most surprising and unsettling.

Koch had written a literary thriller without the overtness of a Hollywood action/thriller; more in a Hitchcock thriller kind of way, with the complexity of character and suggestion of tension in every chapter meaning that you simply cannot relax until you have devoured the book cover to cover. Even when I had put the book down, I sat and pondered the actions as they had been described and how I myself might have felt and acted in a similar scenario.

The Dinner is the sort of book you can pick up with your morning coffee and not put down until cocktail hour. It begs to be devoured in one day. Koch’s writing is descriptive, tense and engaging. Originally published in Koch’s native Netherlands in 2009 but only translated into English in 2012, it is an international best seller, and it is easy to see why. I look forward to more English translations of Koch's dark, satirical works.

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