The Dinner - review by Nicky Pellegrino

It is rare to find an international bestseller that doesn’t have a single likeable character in it but Dutch writer Herman Koch has managed to produce one. His 2009 novel The Dinner (Text $37) has sold nearly a million copies so far and is now available in English for the first time. Essentially it is about nasty people doing horrible things; the issues in this story are designed to engage rather than the characters.

The book is set over the course of an awkward dinner at a fancy restaurant. Paul Lohman, the story’s narrator, is dreading this meal with his charismatic politician brother Serge and both their wives. He is chippy about brother’s success, contemptuous of pretentious eateries in general and has a hatred of small talk. But on this particular night there is something more serious bothering him. Shortly before leaving home Paul has watched a horrifying piece of video on his son Michel’s mobile phone and now the happiness of his family is threatened. Serge’s sons are also involved in this outrage. “We need to talk about our children,’ he tells Paul over dinner but only once they have covered the more innocuous ground of latest movies and their exercise regimes.
No one is entirely who they seem in The Dinner, especially Paul. Adroitly Koch takes us inside his head and gradually exposes the man he is. At first he appears harmless enough – just another sneering inverted snob with a superiority complex. His observations are as amusing as they are cynical (particularly during a scene in the men’s urinal). But as the appetizers arrive and the main course follows, the truth trickles out. We learn Paul is a failed teacher and a dangerous narcissist with a capacity for hate and violence possibly due to an unnamed genetic condition he suffers from. His wife Claire appears the only decent person at the table but that is because we are viewing her through Paul’s eyes. When we discover what their teenage sons have been up to, and a threat is made to turn them in, we get to see everyone in a new light,
The Dinner’s premise is one that has been well used by other writers – what if your kids did something awful? Would you protect them at all costs? Or let them face the consequences of their actions?

What marks this book out as different is its tone – scathing and darkly satirical. It’s been compared to The Slap by Chris Tsiolkas and to Lionel Shriver’s work in that the plot lends itself to robust debate and has plenty of meat in it for book clubs.
I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading The Dinner and yet conversely I was completely riveted by it. To me this is the literary equivalent of driving past a traffic accident and being unable to avert your eyes even though you know what younwill see is unpleasant, even tragic. A disturbing, compelling and sometimes frustrating read.


Nicky Pellegrino, an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 5 August, 2012.
Her next novel When In Rome is set in 1950s Italy and will be published next month.