Friday, 10 May 2013

Review: The Dinner, Herman Koch

The Dinner

Herman Koch

Atlantic Books, 2012 (2009)

Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

A summer's evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse - the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.

Each couple has a fifteen year old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children, and as civility and friendship disintegrates, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

The Dinner takes place over the numerous courses of one dinner, one evening in Amsterdam. Paul, his wife Claire, his politician brother Serge and Serge's wife Babette meet at an exclusive restaurant. Ostensibly, the meal is a pleasant evening out between two couples, yet under the surface a horrific event lingers, boiling over just as dessert arrives.

As you might expect from a novel based entirely around one dinner, there is a lot of detail and a lot of insight into the minutiae of the lives of the Lohman family, particularly Paul, from whose perspective the dinner is viewed. The opening few chapters were biting and funny and razor sharp in their dismantling of people's public facades and secret intentions, and it was easy to see things from Paul's point of view as he observes the power games that he thinks his brother is currently playing with him.

These small observations and reflections on relationships and families and past events continue throughout the dinner, as the backgrounds of both Lohman families start to become clearer, and the horrific event is revealed. The Dinner is very clever, and rather insidious in its manipulation of the reader, as the parameters of reasonable behaviour start to shift before you really realise it.

The Dinner is quite difficult to talk about without giving too much away, but I highly recommend giving it a go. It's revelations about middle class privileges and the horrors that parents become in pursuit of their children's futures made this a compelling read, and one of my favourites of the year.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This book counts towards my 2013 Translation Challenge.

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