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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Dinner

Herman Koch

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To purchase The Dinner

Title: The Dinner
Author: Herman Koch
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 292 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Dinner - US
The Dinner - UK
The Dinner - Canada
The Dinner - India
Le dîner - France
Angerichtet - Deutschland
La cena - Italia
La cena - España
  • Dutch title: Het diner
  • Translated by Sam Garrett

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Our Assessment:

B : cleverly turned dark tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 11/8/2012 .
Financial Times B+ 27/7/2012 Simon Kuper
FAZ . 27/8/2010 Oliver Jungen
The Guardian . 17/8/2012 Louise Welsh
The Independent . 28/7/2012 Arifa Akbar
Irish Times A 8/9/2012 Eileen Battersby
The LA Times . 28/3/2013 Jenny Hendrix
The NY Times F 7/2/2013 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/3/2013 Claire Messud
The Observer B+ 28/7/2012 Alex Preston
The Spectator . 4/8/2012 Cressida Connolly
Sunday Times . 22/7/2012 Robert Collins
Sydney Morning Herald A 11/8/2012 Rebecca Starford
The Telegraph . 9/8/2012 David Annand
Wall St. Journal . 15/2/2013 Moira Hodgson
The Washington Post . 21/2/2013 Lisa Zeidner
World Literature Today . 9-10/2013 Jason A. Christian

  Review Consensus:

  Quite impressed, think it's well done

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Dinner is a family drama replete with surprises, so it is important not to give away too much of the plot here. It is enough to say that Mr Koch seizes his readers by the ear, and with a sharp pinch pulls their sympathies this way and that. In this he is greatly helped by Sam Garrettís seamless translation, which is particularly good at creating a voice for the subtler of the Lohman brothers, the narrator Paul." - The Economist

  • "Koch pulls off the novelís transformation with almost total success. Very largely -- though not entirely -- he persuades us to believe in the later horrors just as we did the early banalities. This is a virtuoso achievement: a TV comedian who, in his fifties, reveals himself as a born novelist. Starting in the overpriced restaurant, Koch ends up homing in on some of the most ancient and fundamental themes: murder and heredity, siblings and madness. It is all written in brisk prose, which aspires to nothing more than moving the plot along. Sam Garrettís translation is mostly up to the job, albeit with the odd awkward rendering" - Simon Kuper, Financial Times

  • "Ständig muss der Leser sein Radar neu justieren. Und nicht zuletzt das ist es, was dieses Buch so aufregend macht." - Oliver Jungen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Koch paces his revelations expertly, and there are twists and turns enough to keep us reading, but his decision to ascribe the former teacher's violent outbreaks to a biological defect -- to make Paul's condition something other than simply the human condition -- diminishes the book. Paul is clearly not "one of us", whoever "we" may be. But The Dinner is more than its plot, and Paul's voice, combined with his knowledge of his own flawed personality, has the potential to sustain the novel without the drama of the two boys' transgressions and their parents' divided responses." - Louise Welsh, The Guardian

  • "Koch manoeuvres his story away from black humour and towards the baroque. It is now that the hand-wringing family drama turns into a horror story. Herman Koch is a Dutch actor as well as novelist, and it shows. The Dinner prefers theatricality over realism, and this is refreshing if one accepts its artifice. (...) It may thrill, chill or cheat, but it is undeniably riveting, even if in the end, its spectacular style triumphs over substance." - Arifa Akbar, The Independent

  • "The Dinner is both unbelievable and utterly credible. Slowly but surely, Koch wipes the collective smirk off our faces. Yet the laughs keep coming in the shape of Paulís observations. (...) Herman Koch, in effect, brilliantly questions what anyone would do in such a situation. He allows his narrator full freedom to lampoon the moral option while causing the reader to shuffle away and wonder what they would do if faced with a similar dilemma -- but not without having had a wonderful time first." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "The real pleasure of The Dinner lies in its ability to slowly gain your trust as the meal progresses" - Jenny Hendrix, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Dinner, Herman Kochís internationally popular novel, is an extended stunt (.....) This book has been widely described as both thriller and chiller, but it really is neither. Nor is it much of a cultural parable, though that seems to be part of Mr. Kochís intent. (...) But itís the morality of the story thatís really sickening." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "This, then, is a novel that rests on the disclosure of secrets. (...) To build a novel around its secrets presents a structural challenge. Certainly, the promise of their unveiling compels the reader. But that compulsion can be hollow, and easily dissatisfied. (...) The Dinner, absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow, and this may be the most unsettling thing about it." - Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Dinner lacks the weight and finesse of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it is a well-paced and entertaining novel." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "The Dinner is nasty and brutish and will no doubt prove immensely popular. It is possible that this novel sprang like a stream of clear water from Mount Parnassus into the authorís mind, but it reads as if it was tailor-made from a list of material guaranteed to needle and provoke. As such, it will provide perfect fodder for dinner-party conversation." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

  • "The Dinner is a masterful, disturbing piece of theatre. (...) While simple in its structure and narrative scope, The Dinner is stylish and textured with other commentary." - Rebecca Starford, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "With its propulsive forward momentum, cast of angry unsympathetic characters and interest in the consequences of sudden, startling outbursts of violence, The Dinner is reminiscent of recent bestseller, The Slap, whose author, Christos Tsiolkas, provides a glowing cover line. A more illuminating comparison, however, might be with Michel Houellebecq, and not simply because Kochís affectless prose and misanthropic narrator echo the Frenchmanís best work." - David Annand, The Telegraph

  • "Mr. Koch delivers his revelations cleverly, by the spoonful. Issues of morality, responsibility and punishment are raised along the way, and a Pinteresque menace lurks under the surface. When savagery takes over, the reader is shocked. But some of Mr. Koch's conclusions are a bit too pat." - Moira Hodgson, Wall Street Journal

  • "(T)his tongue-in-cheek page-turner demands that you turn the pages past a lot of material that is only tangentially related to the arresting plot." - Lisa Zeidner, The Washington Post

  • "The difficulty for the reader (and what makes the novel so interesting and ambiguous) is parsing justifiable critiques from sociopathic paranoia. And it only gets more entangled as the story unfolds." - Jason A. Christian, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Dinner is narrated by Paul Lohman, a one-time history teacher whose brother, Serge, looks set to be the next Dutch prime minister. The bulk of the novel is set at a dinner at a very fancy restaurant, where the two brothers and their wives, Claire (Paul's wife) and Babette, have something they have to discuss. Divided into sections, following the progress of the meal -- 'Aperitif', 'Appetizer', etc., all the way through the 'Digestif' -- the novel neatly contrasts the pseudo-civilized ceremonies and rituals of dinner-service in an upscale restaurant, ruthlessly skewered by an unimpressed Paul, and the very ugly business the four are there to discuss.
       Both couples have fifteen-year-old sons, Michel -- Paul and Claire's kid -- and Rick, and the two are responsible for something very, very bad. Headline-making bad. Leaving-a-whole-nation-hand-wringing bad. But what exactly happened is only slowly revealed: like the meal itself, Koch dishes information out course by course for maximum effect.
       From the start there's a sense that all isn't well. Paul complains about having to go out;

A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell; the actual evening is hell itself.
       Or, for example, when Serge and Babette arrive (late) at the restaurant, Paul sees that Babette has been crying.
       Still, the hints of something(s) wrong are vague, and initially the dinner seems like most such dinners between relatives who know each other well but don't really move comfortably in the same circles. Only slowly does Paul reveal bits and pieces, of his own past and also of the events that bring them together here -- ugly turn after ugly turn as they plunge into the abyss.
       Paul is an interesting narrator: on the one hand he appears quite open and forthright -- and he certainly spills a lot of his guts. On the other hand he also often plays coy, explaining that he wants to avoid certain specifics -- a time, a place, an amount. And if not an out-and-out unreliable narrator, he certainly isn't one that one wants to place too much confidence in, as he offers a spin on many things that repeatedly shifts the often very unfavorable light. Still, as far as the worst details go -- and there are several really nasty things he admits to and reveals -- there's little sugar-coating here.
       Cleverly, Koch layers on quite a few twists -- including information that Paul is not initially aware of. The dynamics of the quartet, as to how best to deal with what their sons were responsible for, shifts unexpectedly too; Paul, of course, knows how he wants to protect his boy, but how the others react to the course one of them suggests taking do come as a bit of a surprise. Adding to the tension is the growing awareness that the story isn't over -- not just insofar as what the parents decide regarding the proposition that is on the table, so to speak, but separately also for the boys, who apparently have to deal with some of the fall-out for themselves (something which, it becomes increasingly clear, at least some of the parents are aware of, making them evermore directly complicit as the evening progresses). Details, such as cellphone mix-ups -- over the course of the evening Paul winds up with (and winds up examining) not only Michel's but also Babette's -- can feel a bit forced, but for a novel of such violence Koch's presentation is surprisingly (and disturbingly) plausible.
       The novel is effective in that it progresses down a path that leaves readers repeatedly thinking (presumably in varying degrees of shock) of the characters: they can't do that -- only for them to do it. Koch blunts the moral issues raised here by introducing inherited psychopathy as an explanation for much of what happens, which makes it easier to think of some of the characters as 'monsters'; of course, the book is at its most disturbing when those characters who would seem to have a moral compass act (or, also, don't act ...). As disturbing as the caught-on-video outrage committed by the two boys is -- and in Paul's careful, extended retelling it becomes very disturbing indeed -- Koch wisely and effectively closes the books with two violent betrayals that both happen off stage.
       Paul is able to rationalize a great deal -- at least to himself -- by arguing: "not all victims are automatically innocent victims". The Dinner is a story that goes considerably beyond the question of how far parents will go to protect their offspring, requiring such a they-had-it-coming mentality. It makes for a tale that certainly leaves a sour aftertaste -- but there's no question that it's quite effectively served and presented. Even if parts don't ring true -- the dinner-set-up and contrast may be clever, but feels rather contrived too, and Serge as candidate for the highest office in the land doesn't entirely convince either -- the book can be appreciated purely for its quite impressive shock value.
       A solid B-thriller, in every respect -- but also little more, as Koch ultimately shies away from the hardest questions, hiding behind his off-his-meds narrator.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 January 2013

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The Dinner: Reviews: Herman Koch: Other books by Herman Koch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Herman Koch was born in 1953.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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