“If I had to give a definition of happiness, it would be this: happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn’t have to be validated…unhappy families – and within those families, in particular the unhappy husband and wife – can never get by on their own. The more validators, the merrier. Unhappiness loves company. Unhappiness can’t stand silence – especially not the uneasy silence that settles in when it is all alone.” - Paul Lohman, narrator, The Dinner
With some novels, the plot is discernible in the first few pages, while with others, it is issued forth piecemeal, in bites that, if well-written, are greedily devoured by the reader. The Dinner, written by the internationally-renown Dutch author Herman Koch, belongs with the latter and certainly possesses the sort of narration that propels the reader forward along with the unfolding tale.
The setting in which the majority of the story takes place is an unnamed (“…because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there.”), fashionable (“…the lamb’s-neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and is served with arugula..”) restaurant in Amsterdam where two couples are having dinner, cleverly emphasized with the five sections of the book named for stages of the meal: Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif.
The night in which the dinner takes place finds two couples meeting for some specific reason that remains initially unknown. As the story progresses, it is revealed that the two men are in fact brothers, Serge and Paul Lohman, brothers who could not be more different, as brothers seem very often to be. Incidentally, both couples have fifteen-year-old sons, close cousins whose shared actions have the potential for absolute ruin, and this is the reason for their culinary endeavor.
As the evening marches on and details come to light, the niceties and early conversation dominated by light topics disappear, and what emerges are parents desperately devoted to their sons and intent on securing their futures in the way they are convinced is best, whatever the cost. Tension can find its source in all manner of things, and at times, it is the unseen undercurrent that vexes the reader most – it is known that something is there, something is terribly wrong, but what exactly it is defies instant revelation.
The Dinner offers the reader prose of the first order and a top notch mystery, not a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, but a mystery of just what exactly happened, who is to blame, and what is to be done. Truth can be a tricky thing, especially in a realm in which familial love and devotion is the rule of the day.
“It’s like a pistol in a stage play: when someone waves a pistol during the first act, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That’s the law of drama. The law that says no pistol must appear if no one’s going to fire it.” - Paul Lohman, narrator, The Dinner
Formats Available: Book (Regular Type), eBook, Audiobook (CD)
Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill