The Dinner by Herman Koch

Thursday, October 17, 2013


The Dinner
The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.

I wish I had reviewed this one right away when I read it 7 months ago. I loved The Dinner so much that I rated it 5 stars almost immediately. Usually, I let myself subconsciously ponder the book for a few days, bash it a bit, compare thoughts, criticize and praise it some before I come to a complete opinion about the book. With this one, I was almost blown away by its construction, and more than willing to overlook its somewhat lackluster ending.

The Dinner is set through an entire dinner in a nice posh restaurant, where two couples are meeting to discuss a certain sensitive matter. Our narrator, Paul, makes it clear to the reader that he is the only level-headed person of the group and his wife the sensible one. He paints the other couple, who, over time we learn, is his brother and his wife, as unworthy of his attention. But as the story progressed, I began to doubt Paul. He was criticizing his brother way too much but other than his word, there was nothing to show that his brother was in the wrong in any sense. It began to be clear that something was amiss among these four people but it was hard to put your finger at it.

The two couples are there to talk about their sons, or rather about something their sons did. But until the very end, it's not mentioned what that something is. It is clear, however, that the two couples disagree with each other on what to do about it. Through flashbacks, we get a bigger insight into the relationships of the two couples and what causes them to disagree so much.

I loved The Dinner for multiple reasons. Set through an entire dinner, it does a great job of character development through vignettes, character biases and flashbacks. Not much time passes from the beginning of the dinner until the end, but a lot happens in between that it is amazing how you can write a whole story set during that timeframe. The actual dinner is also an underlying theme of the book. It was a mockery of how expensive restaurants can be and how, the more you paid for a dish, the less the quantity seemed to be, almost as if you were paying for the emptiness of a plate than its fullness. It also mocked some restaurants' obsession with describing each dish, right from where each ingredient was obtained, all the way to which type of salt was added to it.

The Dinner raises two questions: one dealt with how much privacy was it okay to give a child, and when is snooping into their affairs acceptable. What if you knew of a really horrid deed that your child did, but you found it out by embarrassingly peeping into your child's secrets. The two couples at the dinner bring two opposing arguments to the table. One couple wants to intervene, the other wants to look the other way. Although one character makes a lot of argument in favor of respecting established privacy rules, it becomes ironic when that character has serious trust issues because of knowing about something and not being able to ask about it. The other question this book raised is how much does DNA vs environment play a role in a child's actions. If you committed a crime and your child did too, is that because of your DNA or was it just a circumstance of the child's upbringing?

As a witness to their situation, it was hard to place myself in either set of shoes. On the one hand, it is easy to understand that you would want to protect your child. Some parents love blaming the world for everything. My son raped the girl? Oh, she was asking for it. My son kicked your boy? You son provoked mine. It is harder to be on the other side. My son did a bad thing and we need to call the cops. I can't imagine that any parent will go to bed that night saying I did the right thing, even if they did. Koch nails this dilemma perfectly.

I loved this book for its thought-provoking nature but also because you spend the whole book in the head of a character you begin to depend on, only to find out in the end that he was very unreliable. It makes you wonder if anything he reminisced about is true.  It almost begs a reread, but this time with a more cautious perspective. I did feel that the ending was a bit rushed and anti-climactic but I was able to forgive that because of the rich discussions that the rest of the book encouraged. And that ending, there's a lot you could say about it, in an almost Shutter Island-ish way. Definitely a great book club read!


I borrowed this book from the good old library.

13 comments:

Shannon @ River City Reading said...

I really loved this one, too, for many of the reasons you mention. I liked the social commentary of it more than the "thriller" aspect - I think it just had so much to say about people and our relationships.

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

Ooh, I love unreliable narrators. This sounds really good!

Anna @ Diary of an Eccentric said...

This sounds like a book that really makes you think! Thanks for putting it on my radar.

Ti Reed said...

I hate to say it, but I ditched this one at 23 chapters in. I am surprise too because it's everything I normally like. There was one specific point where I just could not deal with the narrator anymore. I was going to push through it but didn't have the patience.

Lisa Sheppard said...

This seems to be a love it or hate it book but that alone kind of makes me want to pick it up. Definitely sounds like a really interesting book; think I would end up on the love side judging from your review.

Jennifer Hartling said...

Wonderful review! I've seen so many mixed reviews for this. People love it. People hate it! No matter which way they go it seems to cause a major reaction in readers. I need to get my hands on a copy :D

Athira / Aths said...

I agree. It raised some sensitive questions - things you like not to think about and brush to the back of your head.

Athira / Aths said...

It was. I hope you get a chance to read it.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome!

Athira / Aths said...

This is a book that people either love or hate. I've seen arguments on both sides of the fence and honestly, I can see how this book can do that. The narrator is not a pleasant head to be in. Sometimes I did want to whack him.

Athira / Aths said...

It is definitely controversial. I hope you do give it a try and I'll be interested in knowing what you think.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get to read this one. It is great in the sense that it drives some strong reactions in people. I enjoy reading the reviews of this book because people end up having a lot to say.

Athira / Aths said...

Yay!