Fiction - paperback; Atlantic Books; 311 pages; 2012. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.
Appearances can be deceptive and so it is with Herman Koch's rather dark and delicious novel, The Dinner, which looks like a simple story that unfolds over the course of a family dinner, but which turns out to be so much more than that.
A five-course menu
The book, which is set in Amsterdam, is divided into five parts — Aperitif, Appetiser, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif — across 46 relatively short chapters. As you might expect from its title and the naming convention of the sections, it's set in a restaurant — one of those fancy, upmarket nouvelle cuisine type restaurants, where there is more white plate on show than food. Or, as our often witty and slightly sneering narrator puts it when his wife's appetiser arrives:
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.
Over the course of the meal, we become familiar with the two couples sitting around the table, each of whom has a 15-year-old son. There's an undeniable tension between them from the start, mainly because the narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, would have much preferred to eat in a more down-to-earth establishment, a local café, but they have already agreed to meet Serge and his wife, Babette, at the fancy restaurant because that's the kind of place they like to eat at.
Serge, it turns out, is not only pretentious and a bit of a wine snob — "all this I-know-everything-about-wine business irritated the hell out of me" — he's a renowned (and popular) politician. In fact, he's the leader of the Opposition in Holland and is expected to be the country’s next Prime Minister.
But there's more to this initial tension than mild envy: it turns out to be a ferocious — and unspoken — clash between parenting values, because their teenage sons have committed a rather horrendous crime and each couple wants to deal with it in a different way. The subject, however, isn't one that can readily be discussed over pink champagne and goat's cheese salad...
An unexpected and compelling read
I have to say that I didn't quite know what to expect from The Dinner, but it turned out to be a highly original, often uncomfortable and totally compelling read, by far the most unusual book I've read in a long while. It's not quite a black comedy, but I did laugh a lot, mainly at the narrator's sneering, judgemental tone and witty one-liners. The further I got into the story, however, the more my laughter simply felt wrong, because this is the kind of book that tilts your whole axis and tests your empathy for certain characters to the absolute limit.
It's a hugely entertaining read, but there's a lot of social commentary here, some of which is clearly tongue-in-cheek — for example, the whole pretentiousness of Western cuisine and food writing — and most of which is not. I'd like to use the term "hard-hitting" to describe it, but that's too overused — a cliché if you will — and it doesn't quite convey the creeping sense of unease I felt as I got closer and closer to the ending.
The Dinner is a disturbing morality tale of the finest order, the kind of novel that makes you marvel at the writer's ingenuous plot, filled as it is with unexpected turns and eye-opening revelations, all carefully structured and perfectly paced to keep the reader on tenterhooks throughout — think Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but less showy and more intelligent. It's bold, daring and shocking, but it's also bloody good fun.