The Dinner by Dutch author Herman Koch is chilling, yet subtle and features some of the most morally bankrupt characters I have read about in some time. I have read a lot of books lately which feature few if any likeable characters, and The Dinner is the same – the characters are fascinating, captivating, but certainly not likeable.
First person narrator Paul Lohman draws us into his world and we believe and trust him, only to learn later that we are duped. At first he seems grounded in his family life. He was a school teacher and seems to be retired due to his health. He loves his family, his fifteen year old son and his wife who he says smells of “shampoo and happiness”. What doesn’t he like? He dislikes pretension and hypocrisy. He dislikes the upscale restaurant that his brother has chosen for an important family dinner. He dislikes the food, the atmosphere, the music and the waiter. He also really dislikes his brother, who is a person of some fame in Amsterdam, who is likely to become the next prime minister. As the meal progresses Paul’s spite and venom become uncomfortably obvious as we learn about his hatred for his brother’s children, including the African child he adopted, surely only to stroke his own ego.
Why are they enduring this awkward meal? The children, sons of Paul and his brother Serge, have done something terrible and it must be dealt with. I will say no more as the reveal is the book’s appeal.
I discovered that I enjoyed this book more after I had finished reading it, once I had the full picture of what had happened. It began slowly, but as the layers of truth were revealed a despicable nastiness emerged. The boys’ crime was bad, however, in the world of fiction I have encountered a lot worse. For me the creepiness factor was enhanced by the lengths the parents’ would go to protect their child and the nature of evil, bringing to mind a similar read by Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin.
“Kevin Katchadourian killed seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher, shortly before his sixteenth birthday. He is visited in prison by his mother, Eva, who narrates in a series of letters to her estranged husband Franklin, the story of Kevin’s upbringing. A successful career woman, Eva is reluctant to forgo her independence and the life she shares with Franklin to become a mother. Once Kevin is born, she experiences extreme alienation and dislike of Kevin as he grows up to become a spiteful and cruel child. When Kevin commits murder, Eva fears that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become. But how much is she to blame? And if it isn’t her fault, why did he do it?” Discover