- By Herman Koch; translated by Sam Garrett
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Sandra Parshall
- February 25, 2013
A family’s toxic secrets are slowly revealed during an elaborate dinner.
“You don’t have to know everything about each other. Secrets don’t get in the way of happiness.” Paul Lohman, the unreliable narrator of The Dinner, would like to believe that, but his little family is drowning in toxic secrets that may soon be exposed to the world.
Most families, when faced with a horrifying crisis that could destroy them, would thrash it out in living rooms and bedrooms, with tempers off the leash and bitter recriminations flying in every direction. The adults in the Lohman family — Paul and Claire, Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette — choose to meet in an upscale Amsterdam restaurant, a venue that forces them to maintain civility and keep their voices quiet. Even so, they seem unable to face the dilemma that has brought them together: should they protect their well-educated, cultured sons from the consequences of their own violent actions?
The story is organized around the courses of an elaborate dinner, and begins slowly, with talk of the food, the wine, the restaurant, the latest movies. Paul’s narrative doesn’t reveal the details of the boys’ crime until “The Main Course,” well into the book. (The U.S. publisher mentions it in the jacket copy, perhaps to assure impatient American readers that a crime story will develop eventually.) Until then, the reader has to grab at ominous hints, as Paul jumps from the dinner conversation to his memories of both recent and distant past events to his acidic but entertaining observations of people and the world.
Although their sons are friends, the two brothers despise one another. Serge, in line to become the next prime minister of Holland, is shown through Paul’s eyes as a stereotypically arrogant, selfish politician. Paul ridicules everything about his brother’s life, including Serge and Babette’s adoption of a child from Burkina Faso, which Paul likens to the adoption of a stray cat they might return to the shelter if it misbehaves. But although Paul sounds reasonable, the reader may lose trust in his judgment after learning that he’s unemployed because of a vaguely defined psychiatric problem that requires drugs — which he refuses to take much of the time. This articulate man is more than cynical; he may be insane, or at the very least, as dangerous as his deceptively sweet son.
Many writers have tackled the question of whether parents should protect children who have committed crimes — William Landay’s Defending Jacob is a superb recent example, and Rosellen Brown’s Before and After is still a favorite of book discussion groups 20 years after publication. Most such stories are awash in emotion. The parents agonize over the motivation behind their “normal” child’s violent behavior, questioning their own influence, examining all the ways they could have prevented a catastrophe. The parents in The Dinner don’t do that. One mother’s justification of her son’s actions would make a hardened cynic’s jaw drop, and the least likely of the four may turn out to be the only one with any semblance of a moral compass. This dark, disturbing tale isn’t really about the boys and what they’ve done. It’s about the parents and how far they will go to keep their superficial lives intact.
Despite the slow start, The Dinner is a cleverly written book (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) about fascinatingly awful people. In some ways it’s similar to Ruth Rendell’s psychological suspense novels, but publicity aimed at thriller lovers may be misleading. Anyone who wants a fast pace and a sympathetic protagonist should look elsewhere. This is literary fiction. Like many good mysteries, however, it will leave readers wondering what they would do in the same circumstances.
Sandra Parshall is the author of the Rachel Goddard suspense novels, set in Virginia. Her latest title is Bleeding Through. Visit her website at http://www.sandraparshall.com.