Herman Koch's new novel The Dinner, translated from Dutch, takes a family dinner to depths unforeseen by even survivors of the worst Thanksgiving feast.
Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, are meeting his brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at a fancy Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where all the dishes come with tiny portions and certificates of authenticity.
Paul, as he makes clear, loathes everything about Serge, who's running for prime minister – from the way he eats to where he vacations. But the evening isn't about familial bonding or even Paul's snarky comments. (His annoyance at the manager pointing out ingredients with his pinky is perhaps the most genuine emotion in the novel.)
“The first thing that struck you about Claire's plate was its vast emptiness,” Paul observes. (She had ordered lamb's neck-sweetbread with rocket and sun-dried tomatoes – which apparently hailed from Bulgaria.) “Of course I'm well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.”
Paul's nitpicking takes on overtones of horror as readers realize the real reason for the dinner. The clink of cutlery and the murmur of polite conversation around them are just a civilized backdrop as the two couples decide – between the warm goat's cheese and lamb lettuce and the espresso – what to do about their teenage sons. The boys have committed an atrocity that appalled the entire country. Thanks to grainy security footage, they haven't yet been arrested, but all four parents now are positive their boys are guilty.
They, however, have wildly different ideas about what should be done next.
Koch's bestseller, which has sold more than 1 million copies overseas, takes place almost entirely over five courses.
To go into more detail would be to spoil the novel, but I will say, readers who need to be able to relate to characters: This is not the book for you. There is not one likable person in “The Dinner” – though Paul's wife, Claire, ends up being the most fascinating.
Those who enjoy an unreliable narrator who may be concealing some antisocial tendencies, pull up a chair.
“The Dinner” is a queasy, cold book – as appetizing as tripe ice cream, though expertly prepared. But a reader won't be able to look away until the dishes are cleared.