Book Review: The Dinner



Title: The Dinner

Author: Herman Koch

Translator: Sam Garrett

Genre: Literary fiction

Length: 292 pages

Library: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh–Main

Challenge: Library Books Reading Challenge 2013

Summary: Two wealthy couples go out to dinner. Chaos gradually ensues.


Certain phrases are thrown around when all hell breaks loose: “He was quiet, kept to himself.” “She seemed so normal, never bothered anybody.” One of humanity’s primal fears is that of the disguised demon in our midst, the creature who looks just like us on the surface, but turns out to be something twisted and horrible underneath. What makes that fear truly scary is that it’s half-accurate: there are twisted souls walking among us who look perfectly normal. The problem is, they’re not demons–they’re human, which makes dealing with their actions a giant ball of ethical WTF. And that’s just when you run into them one at a time.

Herman Koch’s chilling novel has most likely lost something in translation from the original Dutch. It’s unavoidable, even with the best translations, and in this case it’s probably a good thing, because this novel disturbed the hell out of me in English. I don’t even want to know how the nuances of Dutch could’ve made it more painful. Paul, our protagonist, is headed out to dinner with his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife Babette. Paul’s in a bit of a snit about this, but given that Serge is probably going to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, you could write it off as sibling jealousy. That is, until the couples meet, the courses begin to arrive, and Paul”s thoughts take darker and darker turns, flashing back to the horrible moment that has necessitated this evening’s dinner and discussion. The first reveal is bad enough, but–just as the food keeps coming and coming–the revelations get worse and worse, until we’re left with the horrible realization that our narrator is not entirely trustworthy, for reasons that are no fault of his own, but no less awful.

Once you know all the secrets, the question becomes, what the hell was the right thing to do? It’s a question without an easy answer, one that will keep you up late with your friends in a diner, caffeinated and bleary-eyed, arguing the finer points of some pretty complex dilemmas. What Paul and Claire choose to do, in the end, will probably not sit well with most readers. Then again, after finishing the novel, Paul and Claire themselves will not sit well with readers. And, sadly, the awful doesn’t stop with just one generation, as the couples’ children play a large part in the debacle, demonstrating how you can’t just sweep problems under the rug and hope they’ll go away. This novel is not for everybody, but for those with strong stomachs and a love of argument, The Dinner will provide ample fodder for rumination and speculation. Or maybe just a strong desire to go find a scrub brush and wipe the experience from your brain.

Recommended for: fans of literary fiction and psychological horror; people whose eyes light up at the prospect of a juicy argument; readers who don’t need a happy ending to have a good reading experience; people who like unreliable narrators; fans of disturbing television shows like Damages and Dexter.


2 Responses to “Book Review: The Dinner”

  1. 1 paperback_writer

    Well, then. It’s off to the CLP website to reserve the book.

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