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Paul and Claire meet for dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette quite often, and Paul usually finds them uncomfortable occasions, having a contempt born out of jealousy for his brother’s successful political career. But on this occasion, things are more tense than usual because the two families need to talk about an incident involving their children. When it becomes obvious they’re not going to agree on how to handle the situation, the tension begins to grow and the conventions of polite behaviour begin to fall apart. The question the book asks is – how far would you go to protect your children?
The book gets off to a flying start, with some great observational humour as Paul, the narrator, looks forward apprehensively to the evening ahead. Koch is great at ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ and we learn as much about Paul’s relationship with his wife and brother from reading between the lines as from what he actually says. But this is only the first layer of the onion – as the book progresses, outward appearances are stripped away until eventually each character is laid bare to us in all their prejudices and flaws. And a pretty unsavoury bunch they are, with Paul himself turning out to be far more complex than he gives us to believe at the beginning. The whole thing slowly becomes very dark, and though it’s clearly heading for a dramatic climax, it’s not at all obvious what that will be until it arrives.
I read Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The twisted morality and dark storyline mixed with some great black humour to make an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The focus was on the father and asked the same question – what would you do to protect your children? I’ve noticed that many people who read The Dinner first found Summer House a bit disappointing because it trod a similar path. Reading them in reverse, I found The Dinner a little disappointing for the same reason.
The Dinner is one of those books where it’s important to know as little as possible going in to get the full effect of the various surprises, so I’ll say no more about the plot. But there were a couple of other things that made me like it a little less than Summer House. Though there is some good observational humour in The Dinner, it doesn’t have quite the edge as in Summer House. In it, the humour is often cruel, but wickedly close to what we maybe all think but don’t say from time to time – and then feel appalled at ourselves for thinking it. In this one, I didn’t get that feeling of delicious recognition and guilt – the humour was more straightforward. But the big difference – and I’ll have to be a little oblique to avoid spoilers – is that there is some small degree of moral justification for the actions in Summer House, but absolutely none that I could accept in The Dinner. Therefore while I had some sympathy for some characters in Summer House, I had none at all for any of them in The Dinner.
But the mild disappointment in this one is only because of the comparison. In itself, this is a good dark psychological thriller, where the quality of the writing and characterisation helps to get the reader past the lack of credibility at some parts of the story – for most of the time. Personally, I found the ending asked me to suspend my disbelief a little too much, but this didn’t destroy my enjoyment of the book overall. The translation from the original Dutch is again by Sam Garrett, who does another very fine job with it. I’ll be interested to see where Koch’s dark imagination takes us in future…
Thanks to Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books whose great review persuaded me to read this one.