Initial reaction: Whoa, this was a complex and intricate look at a very flawed group of individuals attending a dinner. I knew going in that I wouldn’t like the characters, but I was fascinated by the story as it unraveled.
“I’m not a man of too many faces,
The mask I wear is one.”
– from “Shape of My Heart” by Sting.
This book is a mind trip, simply stated.
Even after finishing Herman Koch’s “The Dinner”, my head’s still swimming from the revelations as they’re handed down. Granted, this book primarily takes place in the middle of a well to do restaurant. Four individuals: two men, Josh and Serge, and two women – their wives, Claire and Babette – are at this dinner with unspoken tensions hanging in the air. Josh is the narrator, a somewhat dry, dark humored individual with resentment for his politician brother and a need to put on a front to have a conversation and acknowledge truths that he’d rather not take the time to face.
I knew going into this story that I wouldn’t like a single character from this book, their presumptions and prejudices on the surface being one thing that made me want to bang my head against the wall. At the same time, I wanted to see the layers for what this story offered – why were they meeting at this restaurant and what’s the conversation they’re trying to avoid having? There’s a fascination with it and Koch captures it remarkably well.
Much of what I have to say about the novel is that the less you know about it going in, the better. The base conversation is that these couples have a matter to deal with regarding their children, but there are far more considerations to make given what it is their children have done, and why their reactions/actions are so crucial given the progression of events. It’s much like taking a fruit that seems fine on its surface and peeling back its layers progressively, only to find that the core is blackened and filled with maggots. (Not a pretty image to say the least.) Each of the individuals at this dinner have their own motivations and secrets to hide. Some are in (rampant) denial about events that have happened in the past. Josh himself is a man with many secrets yet there’s a numbness to his character that doesn’t swallow reality all at once. His narration unveils that so vividly that I was drawn into it. I think the comparisons to “Gone Girl” are apt mostly in the use of unreliable narration and corruption for the tale, in that you don’t know what happens until certain events start hitting in succession. You get the picture in bite-sized bits and then when the whole picture comes into focus, it’s definitely a portrait that paints all four characters in a different light than the time they began this dinner, and then subsequently ended.
I really enjoyed the audiobook narration. If there were only one thing that I could say about this novel that kept it from clicking with me even more – it was the pacing. Some of it felt a bit slower/sagged for certain lapses in the text. Whether that was a reflection of the translation or the weight of the story itself, it’s hard to say. There were also certain questions about the narrative that remained unanswered that I felt could’ve been crucial details enlightening the narration (example: Josh’s particular affliction) but I found the journey well worth taking.
Overall score: 4/5 stars.