The Dinner by Herman Koch

the dinnerWe need to talk about Michel…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Herman Koch
Herman Koch

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.

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 4 of my 20 Books of Summer

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41 thoughts on “The Dinner by Herman Koch

  1. A great review and I’m glad you enjoyed this one too! In many ways I think I preferred this one precisely because there was no moral ambiguity to disguise the actions for this one! Despite reading it quite some time ago, it haunts me which when you consider the range of crime fiction I read is quite an achievement! Thanks for the shout-out and a massive congratulations on finishing book 4 for the challenge, it must make up for that TBR count *snigger*

    • I felt the same way about Summer House – it stayed with for me ages. I reckon it really must depend on which one you read first – the second one probably doesn’t have the same shock value because you kinda know what to expect from his style. But both are good – I wonder what he’ll do next! Haha! I’ve finished no. 5 too – still to review it though. Only 33 to go… *breaks down and sobs hysterically*

    • I have a feeling it doesn’t matter which you read first – it seems almost everyone prefers whichever one they read first, maybe because you then know kinda what to expect from the other one. Both well worth reading though – dark with black humour and well written!

  2. I know what you mean about no justification, FictionFan. I found that difficult too. That said, though, I do think you’re right about the book’s quality as a dark psychological thriller. I also found the structure interesting, even innovative. It’s one of those books where I can say I’m very glad I read it, ‘though not one of the characters is really someone I’d want to know…

    • Yes, although Summer House was just as dark, the tiny bit of moral justification made it easier to digest somehow. But both books are really quite original and I love the way he develops his characters bit by bit with every new revelation. I’m intrigued to see where he goes next – I’m hoping he might do something just a little different next time.

  3. Call me an old cynic, but speaking as someone who often has to deal with -ahem! – “troubled” youngsters, I think parents doing less to defend their offspring from the consequences of their actions would be a big help to society as a whole.

    • Haha! Yes, I felt that too at times while reading this. But that’s what makes him so readable – he might exaggerate but there’s a basis in reality for it…

  4. Oooooh… I’m officially excited for Summer House now! I’d read elsewhere that it was disappointing for people who had read The Dinner due to certain similarities, but I hadn’t heard that it had a shred of moral justification in contrast to The Dinner which automatically makes it sound more interesting.

    I have mixed feelings about The Dinner… I enjoyed the humor (Paul’s embarrassment at his brother’s table manners had me laughing out loud!), but I still feel that it goes too far in its ugliness as the story progresses. I read it a few years ago, so perhaps I’ve had enough of a break to pick up Summer House now.

    • It is quite similar in theme, but very different in other ways. It’s just as extreme as The Dinner, but I did think the humour was better targeted to really make the reader feel squirmily uncomfortable. And it is only a shred of moral justification, but that was enough to make me – not quite forgive or empathise with the main character – but to at least see where he was coming from. Hope you enjoy it! Despite the similarities, I think it’s well worth reading both…

  5. And I need to read both of them. I’ve been interested in reading what people have said, while trying not to give away too much of the plot. Always a challenge, right? Anyway, both are on my list and have been for a while. I think they are not too lengthy, so that’s a plus in some ways. Nice analysis.

    • Yes, and the twistier a book, the harder is is to know how much or how little to say about it. I reviewed one recently where I felt I really couldn’t say anything about the plot for fear of spoilers, and I remember one from a few years ago where there was a huge twist at the end of the first chapter! They’re both well worth reading and no, neither is massively long – enjoy!

  6. Great review. I haven’t read either The Dinner or Summer House, but I get the feeling that Koch’s novels could be good candidates for a book group discussion. Complex characters, all those moral complexities…they bring to mind books like The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.

    • Oh, I haven’t come across that one – I shall look it up! Yes, I think The Dinner especially has lots of room for moral questions ripe for discussion – it maybe addresses more general social concerns than Summer House. But both are really good reads so long as the reader doesn’t need likeable characters.

  7. Book 4 of 20books? Eeps … although I’ve nearly finished my Book 2 … Book sounds a bit cruel to me, but a good review in that I know I probably wouldn’t like it, if you see what i mean. I see someone else mentioned “The Slap” – yes, the idea reminds me of that, too (although I didn’t much like that book, got v annoyed with the narrative voices not being differentiated enough).

    • On Book 9 now – unfortunately not keeping up with review writing at the same speed I’m reading! Yes, I like reviews that tell me when I don’t want to read a book too – can’t read them all, so it’s good to know which ones are likely to ‘suit’ us. Haven’t read ‘The Slap’ – I must look into it…

      Sorry about delay in responding. Summertime and tennis… 🙂

    • I think either could be read first, but I did enjoy Summer House more, so if you were thinking of only reading one, that would be my recommendation.

      Sorry about delay in responding. Summer and tennis keep getting in the way of blogging at the moment… 🙂

  8. Mm – I toiled and moiled when the Kochs (and the Tsoilkas) all appeared on the Vine, but they all failed to hook me – the problem being early reviews, by both lovers and those who did not, which made sense to me, and were well argued too. So I stayed literally on the fence between all the good reviews, however the stars were falling!

    It will probably be one of those I never get round to reading, precisely because the ‘I MUST read THIS!’ TBR continues so ferociously compelling and unmanageable.

    I’m currently well into a RE-read, as it turns out, of The Grapes of Wrath, thanks to your compelling review, and swinging (as I think you were too) between adoration and irritation, but adoration (even within irritation) kind of always trumping, because it is clearly such a blazingly engaged with book, by the writer, particularly in the context of its time and place.

    • Not sure either is your kind of thing – they’re good, but definitely more dark ‘fun’ than anything particularly meaningful. I’m enjoying my summer reading list – picking twenty in advance seems to have worked for me – stopped me being distracted by whatever sparkly thing comes along, and has made me think twice about those pesky NG temptations…

      • Well done you!. I’ve just come from returning books to the library, and am not sure how it happened, but 6 books got borrowed. Including Steinbeck’s first……………….

        • I just avoid the library completely – couldn’t cope with yet another source of free books… (so spoiled!) It will be a while before I’m ready to read more Steinbeck – if ever…

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