BWW Reviews: Herman Koch's Thrilling THE DINNER Premieres in Paperback
A good book should be like a good meal. First, a light yet tasty starter that anticipates what's to come. Then, a main course that thrills and satisfies- something not too light, not too heavy- and that hosts a variety of flavors. Finally, a dessert that provides a certain pleasure according to taste, capping off the prior courses while also leaving you with the hopes of a return trip.
THE DINNER works its thrilling and psychologically complex plot in much the same way, even assigning the books sections titles like "Appetizer," "Main Course," and "Dessert." But these titles function as more than metaphors. The novel's events unfurl over the course of one dinner at a prestigious Amsterdam restaurant. Dining together are Paul Lohman (the novel's narrator), his loving wife Claire, his politician-brother Serge, and Serge's wife Babette. They have reunited, to Paul's dismay, to discuss a matter involving their sons. The events that led to this reluctant meeting are slowly revealed through non-linear flashbacks and reflections.
The biggest accomplishment of the novel is that as the sons' crimes are revealed, so is our narrator's own disturbing psychological character. When we first meet Paul, he's a relatable every-man; his cynicism regarding his brother and the pretentiousness of his surroundings is a trait readers can identify with. His negativity is also balanced with his deeply loving relationship with his wife Claire and son Michel. Yet, we soon realize that what makes this happy family so happy is their shared criminal natures.
THE DINNER twists and turns with every fast-paced chapter, and while I sometimes felt a bit of disbelief, most of plot felt organic, as if everything that happened before was actually, unbeknownst to us, leading to its particular troubling climax. It's remarkable to see how much Paul's narrative choices hide the truths about his family, how much control he has over the reader's version of events, and how swiftly the story changes once we are distanced from his viewpoint.
THE DINNER's paperback release includes a short enlightening interview with the author, a short essay by the author on the all-important first lines of a book, and a discussion guide.
Photo via npr.org.