The Dinner by Herman Koch – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These opening lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina occur near the beginning of The Dinner and should provide a clue to the novel. The protagonist is the husband and father of an apparently happy family. He adores his wife, whom he acknowledges to be smarter than he is, and is besotted with his teenage son. A happy threesome. As the novel opens, we see the husband and his wife on their way to a swank dinner in Holland with an obviously well known figure and his wife. We do not know why they are having dinner together or why the other husband is famous. This could be a novel satirizing those overpriced, overhyped dinners of the chic set. But the novel is deeper than that and not funny at all. It is difficult to review because the genius of the book is the slow and surprising revelation of character and the ties that bind relationships together. To describe just what happens would spoil it for the reader.

Slowly the layers are peeled away; the family is not so happy after all. The two couples are related, one husband the brother of the other and they are meeting to resolve a family problem with dramatic implications. The protagonist, a sympathetic character at the beginning slowly becomes less sympathetic as the story reveals itself and even though we are seeing life through his eyes, we realize that something is seriously amiss in him. In a way there is a sideways comment on Dutch society, on racism, on immorality but above all, this is a novel about character and choices – life choices – those of the husband, and more surprisingly of his apparently sane and stable wife. Koch has a gift for describing the small details of thoughts, conversations and settings, details which  make the book come alive and with which all readers can identify. And it is quite scary!

First published in Dutch, the novel has been translated by Sam Garrett, who must be congratulated. This reviewer cannot read Dutch so cannot make a phrase for phrase comparison, but the essence of the book, the darkness, comes through. In describing the restaurant manager who obsessively points out the selling points of the various dishes, the translation has him point his “pinky”, not his “little finger”. The use of the word “pinky” conveys perfectly the effete nature of the man.

This book is a compelling read for those who love novels about character and the lives they lead. The Greek philosopher Heroclitus said that character is fate. This is certainly the case in this novel, as in Anna Karenina.

The Dinner is available at Mill Street Books in Almonte. Price $28