I don’t know what it is about psychological thrillers, but I can’t get enough of them. There’s something about knowing that something terrible is lurking beneath the surface as you make your way through a story, always wondering, always guessing, always challenging yourself to make the conclusion first. This is exactly what reading Herman Koch’s The Dinner is like.
This bestselling book tells the story of kept secrets and forced appearances in the setting of a dinner at a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam. Paul Lohman, a former history teacher with a complicated past, meets with his brother, Serge Lohman, who is campaigning to be the next prime minister. Along with their wives, a tense dinner commences in which all participants try to both ignore and address the issue at hand: their children. Each family has a 15-year-old son who has been involved in a crime that has rocked the nation, but no one knows they are responsible yet. Except their parents.
This is the basic premise that got me interested in the book when I picked up and read the back cover in a bookstore. I was intrigued by the idea of a story being told over the course of a meal in a public restaurant, which seems to be the leading reason why people are drawn to the novel. What is especially interesting about Koch’s decision to tell the story in this way, is that this type of situation often happens in every type of place — what is it about discussing sensitive subjects in public that makes us think it will make everything okay? I’ve overheard breakups and custody battles, seen various arguments and witnessed many a thrown water glass. And why? The setting, as Paul continually points out the waiters, hostesses and other diners throughout the book, serves to heighten the drama and overall tense tone of the book, which I liked. When I began to read this book, I thought the threat came from Serge and his wife, when it actually lies in the people seated at nearby tables who could potentially overhear bits of their conversation.
When we finally find out the crime the boys have committed, I was surprised. Koch paints it as the riled-up, mistaken actions of half-sober teenagers; yet, something dark still lurks. The way Koch reveals the situation and the possible explanations for certain happenings is a slow release, unfolding like the excruciatingly slow dinner Paul is forced to weather. While the ethical question at the heart of this book quietly whispered itself throughout the novel, it finally confronts the characters at the end while also revealing the true nature of each character in a snap moment. If your child committed a crime, would you turn them in? In the beginning, I believed Paul would be the one to suggest this very thing.
In the beginning, we are told of Serge and his headstrong, seemingly boorish and selfish mannerisms. But during the “Digestif” section, Paul’s discriminations melt away to reveal a diplomatic father attempting to do the right thing. And instead, we see the fierce mother in Claire and what she is willing to do to keep her family together after so much bad luck. I’ve read several reviews that say people love this book because they hate or cannot relate to any of the characters. To a certain extent, I agree. This is exactly the reason I love authors like Gillian Flynn — they write realistic, flawed characters and nobody is Disney princess perfect. Koch has definitely employed this technique in his writing, and while I couldn’t really relate to any of the characters, I did find myself liking Claire.
But the most intriguing character is Paul himself. While he is an unreliable narrator, Paul can often present aspects of his story with the clarity we need to see a scene in full. The manifestation of Paul’s mental illness was definitely a curve-ball for me and, I must admit, I had a difficult time reconciling the loving, mild-mannered Paul of the beginning with the violent man struggling to argue for and against moral ethics at the same time. As we learn more about Paul’s fading grip on sanity, the truth of the crime begins to fade away and we are presented with yet another, deeper question: How do you deal with the repercussions of your own genetics? I really loved this aspect of the novel because it was one I hadn’t seen before. Koch delicately weaves in instances where his son, Michel, sees him losing control. And later, we see Paul justifying his actions and thoughts to his son. They become mirrors of each other and this realization becomes the main deliberation for Paul — rather than face the reality of what his son has done, he must face that he became an indirect cause of what his son has become.
Finally, toward the end, the action returns to the present where the group learns of Serge’s intentions turn his son over to the police in an attempt to save him from the inner turmoil of living with the truth. The other three cannot allow this. Here, I thought it was interesting that Paul seemed to fade into the background where he does not do anything himself and rather watches things planned by his family, unfold. This was an interesting turn to me, as it seems that if anyone were to do anything rash, it would be Paul. This strategic move shows the weight that the events has taken on Paul and the extent to which his knowledge of his son’s personality disorder affects him. In the end, we know that while the rest of his family seems to be able to live with the truths of what they have done, Paul cannot. As with the entire book, we are left with a foreboding sense of tension rather than a deep breath of relief, which I find interesting. I feel that many writers, especially with thrillers, attempt to give their stories definite endings. However, here Koch adheres to real life, as he has done throughout the book, by giving us a sense that the story has not ended and the characters will go on living and dealing with their lives. And while it may be frustrating for readers to have the feeling that the story has not ended, that is the truth of a situation like this. The story will never end for the characters because the guilt will persevere.
While the timeline can be a bit confusing, The Dinner is a masterful suspense-story that succeeds in presenting the reader with deeper, moral questions, rather than relying on the simple need to discover the truth. Instead, he grows pits of anger, frustration and fear in your stomach by showing you the world as it is.
Koch does not impose his own feelings about the issues onto readers, saying that no one can truly say what the “right” answer is, or what the “right” thing to do would be. We are subject to our own human feelings and the lessons we learned in our upbringing. That alone will dictate what we do and how we feel.
Maybe the one thing he does teach us: never attempt to discuss a delicate subject in public.
I will be very interested to see how the film adaptation starring Steve Coogan, Richard Gere and Laura Linney presents the questions beneath the thriller intrigue. The Dinner motion picture is set for release in early May 2017.
What did you think of Herman Koch’s The Dinner? How did Koch employ the traditional tools of thrillers to a more reserved location and character set? Do you think it was effective? Would you turn your children into the police for committing a crime? Can genetic traits be curbed? Let’s talk.