Review: The Dinner, by Herman Koch

Two Dutch couples meet for dinner in an expensive restaurant:  Paul and Claire, Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette.  Their meeting at first seems purely social, and something they do together from time to time.  But from minute details strategically placed in the narrative, the reader begins developing a different picture.  Just before leaving the house, Paul discovers disturbing content on his son Michel’s phone, but chooses not to mention it to Claire.  Paul detects signs of distress when Serge and Babette arrive at the restaurant.  We learn their son Rick was involved in a crime, as was Michel.  But what do the parents actually know?  What will they do about it?  And how did two boys from “good families” get into this situation?

Paul narrates the events of that evening, filling in family history along the way.  The result is a kind of cross between We Need to Talk About Kevin (troubled teens committing horrific acts) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (disturbing scenes unfolding over a meal).  Neither family is what they seem at the outset.  Paul is an unreliable narrator, failing to see the damage resulting from his behavior over the years.

None of the characters are likeable; in fact, they are all pretty horrible.  And the story is unpleasant, too.  Normally that would be enough to make me hate a book.  Why didn’t that happen this time?  Because I was really intrigued by Koch’s writing.  I liked the way he meted out relevant details, first in tiny fragments and then in increasingly obvious chunks.  He deftly showed us not only the nature of the boys’ crime, but events that directly and indirectly made it possible, and made me question who really was the guilty party in this case.  The book was hard to put down and I finished it in just a couple of days; however, its dark, disturbing nature means it’s one I cannot recommend unequivocally.

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Dinner, by Herman Koch

    • Wow, that’s a scathing review! This book is clearly a “love it or hate it” experience. It would be great for book club discussion.

  1. I felt this way, too. I don’t mind a disturbing book or characters I dislike if the writing catches me. I was intrigued by the slow build of Koch’s style and found it to be really intense (it reminded me of the movie Funny Games, which I think is terrifying). Still, I can see why some people dislike and even hate it.

    • RCR, I can see why opinions are divided as well. Some have compared it to Gone Girl, which was excellent. Although it’s similarly dark, I don’t think it’s of the same calibre. Still, it was quick read and unputdownable, at least for me.

  2. I personally really liked the book. Impossible to put down.
    Why in the beginning is Paul almost reluctant to call Claire his wife and then at the end Claire makes a comment about siblings. I think this alluded to Paul and Claire being brother and sister. Am I crazy or did anyone else catch this?

    • I didn’t catch that Katherine and unfortunately my copy of the book has already been returned to the library. That’s a very interesting observation!

    • I also noticed that Katherine and wondered the same thing. In fact, I Googled it and that is how I found your reply.

      • I’m so glad you caught it too! Maybe we are both crazy cause I googled the hell out of it and found no support to my claim 🙂

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