Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Ok. So, here’s what I know. Two cousins have done something pretty horrific (I know what it is, but I am not going to spoil it for you), some of their parents know, but not all. One of the parents seems to have a secret of their own with one of the kids (this one I don’t know). One of the parents is completely bitter and resentful, and one of the parents is a VERY well-known politician. I feel like I’ve pretty much been told all of the big secrets... but… the blurb on the book compares this to Gillian Flynn’s GoneGirl, so I am assuming (although we all know where that leads) there must be some pretty big surprises in store.

The Dinner by Herman Koch was first published in The Netherlands in 2009 and made its North American debut in 2013. I had heard some buzz around it then, and found the premise interesting, but it never ended up making its way onto my extensive wish list. In fact, if it hadn’t ended up being one of my Book Club books, I probably wouldn’t have ever read it – although his subsequent book Summer House with Swimming Pool did pique my interest (this is definitely could be mainly because the paperback has a very noir vintage cover)

I must say, I was not enjoying this book for the first 100 pages. The entire book takes place over the course of one dinner with two brothers (Paul and Serge) and their wives. The first quarter of the book is mostly Paul’s inner self complaining resentfully and bitterly about Serge, with occasional interruptions by waiters with detailed descriptions of the food being presented to the couples (I will say that while Paul was driving me nuts… the descriptions of the food were making me pretty hungry… but really, I’m pretty sure that I am mostly always hungry anyway). There is a lot made of the restaurant and the staff and the food, about how it all tries too hard – I am pretty sure that Koch is trying to make a comment on today’s society, as well as serving as anticipation for the actual story, but I found it forced and contrived – Koch just ends up trying too hard himself. It seemed like the whole first quarter of the book was contrary for the sake of being contrary.

I also noticed the weirdest thing, there is a lot of ‘product placement ’in this novel. Paul’s son wears a Nike cap, has an iPod Nano, and a Sony phone; his wife wears DKNY shoes, Paul has a Samsung phone, added as an aside. At dinner they talk about the new Woody Allen movie starring Scarlett Johansson. It all seemed rather strange and too real to me. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any issues with ‘realness’ in books, but this was weird, like they had been added in after and the author was trying to endorse these products. It detracted from the narrative and left me feeling like the author was trying to sell me something. 

However! At about Chapter 18, things start to pick up. We know already that Paul has seen something terrible on his son’s phone, and we learn now that he already knew about the crime that his son had committed – but has elected to not do anything about it. There are hints (alright – it’s made fairly obvious) that Paul may not be the most stable man, leading me to believe that the 100 pages of Paul’s discontent was supposed to lay the groundwork reasoning for future decisions.  I am not sure that the 50 odd pages I enjoyed can make up for the first part – but I am interested to see where this is going. I haven’t learned anything yet about what the other parents know, and whether or not they want to actually deal with the situation, so there are still some definite mysteries to be solved. I keep reading that this story is about how far people will go to protect the ones that they love – but while this intrigues me, it also makes me nervous. The characters are already pretty unlike-able… how bad can it get?

Upon consultation with my fellow book club member, I am wondering if I have judged The Dinner too harshly up to this point. Maybe all the product placement and forced narrative is not the author’s voice, but the narrator Paul’s voice. Maybe, like I guessed at earlier, we really are being set up for something big, and Koch has done a brilliant job of really showing us this story from the head of a really despicable character. As my cohort pointed out – we are normally okay with unlike-able characters because they are often a secondary character – so we still get to root for the narrator, or main character…. But who do we root for here?  I must say, I am much more intrigued now; I want to know how this is going to end, and whether or not anyone will redeem themselves.

So far, this book most reminds me of Swamp Water - a special edition rooibos tea from David's Tea. It changes colour as the tea steeps - going from normal tea colour to a dark green. The colour change reminds me of the characters in this book where things, and people, are not always what they seem.


  1. So Booker Tease, do you recommend that we read this? It doesn't sound like you really love it yet.

    Love your comment about the tea - now I want rooibos tea!

    I love your blog. Keep it up! It's making me excited to read more.

  2. Honestly - I have no idea. Still! haha! This was a tough book - but I definitely wouldn't say an outright no to it!