Book Buzz: THE DINNER by Herman Koch

At ScienceThrillers.com, I specialize in books that have scientific or medical content (see my post on how this is different from science fiction). But sometimes I come across a book that simply is too good not to share, even if it lies outside my technophile niche. Today is #2 in my new and entirely unpredictable series of Book Buzz posts.

The Dinner by Herman Koch is a Dutch literary thriller novel recently published in English. This book definitely has people talking. There’s an unusually even distribution of online reviews, a lot of 1, 2, and 3 star reviews in addition to the 4 and 5 star ones. Thus I warn you, your experience of this book may be different from mine. I think The Dinner is a must-read for suspense writers, and an excellent choice for anyone who likes page-turning literary fiction.

The plot? Hard to say much without ruining the reading experience; see the publisher’s blurb below. The entire book is one long reveal of secrets–secrets hidden by the characters from each other and from society, but mostly secrets hidden from the reader. This aspect of an unreliable narrator drives some readers crazy; I thought it was done masterfully and made the book one I couldn’t put down. Author Herman Koch is clearly manipulating you, the reader, and he’s very good at it. (Again, I think this turns some people off.) I loved it. I let him lead me into the story, into the narrator’s head, all the while knowing I had blinders on that prevented me from seeing the truth. I knew I might blunder into something dark and terrible. And of course I did.

It helps if you have some awareness of recent political trends in Western Europe (a resurgence of right-wing extremism) but not necessary.

The Dinner is a perfect Book Club novel because there is so, so much to talk about. Many layers of interpretation, many aspects that irritate or disturb, and of course plenty of controversy between those who think the book is brilliant and those who think it’s an overrated, self-indulgent piece of foolishness.

Weaknesses: The Dinner has some plot issues that I was willing to ignore. For example, the dinner in question would never have been arranged in a public place. Certain criminal acts are left unpunished in a way I can’t imagine happening in a civilized country. Certain medical claims are made which have no basis in reality.

I highly recommend that you read the opening pages and if you’re not hooked, quit–this book isn’t for you. But if you’re like me, you’ll sit down to devour this Dinner.

Summary from the publisher:

An internationally bestselling phenomenon: the darkly suspenseful, highly controversial tale of two families struggling to make the hardest decision of their lives — all over the course of one meal.

It’s a summer’s evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse — the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.

Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

If you like The Dinner, you might enjoy: Defending Jacob by William Landay.

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