Herman Koch ‘The Dinner’ Book Review

In a way, we are writing this to save you from the Guardian’s constant moral pontification about rich people, or the Daily Mail’s contrived attempts to convince you that they are ‘one of us’. 

Many of the other The Dinner reviews focus more on the surrounding themes in the media and zeitgeist and overlook the actual book itself. They seem to use the book as a conduit to push their own narrative and accidentally parody what seems to be Koch’s message.

So, hopefully, this review will focus more on the substance, rather than the style. 


Herman Koch - The Dinner

Written by Herman Koch, and published in 2009 (in the UK in 2012), has received critical acclaim and has even been turned into a 2017 movie starring Reichard Gere, Steve Coogan and Lauran Linney. The film received very poor reviews all-around, and not a fan favourite on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Dinner‘s story follows two brothers (and their wives), who have arranged a dinner to discuss a rather unsettling situation caused by their teenage son. The two cousins in question are caught up in a rather ruthless, yet accidental, murder of a homeless woman, and the video of the murder goes viral. Thankfully for the boys, and their parents, the identities of the boys is unknown, but the intense backlash has put the entire family’s reputation and livelihoods in danger. Do they protect the boys, and therefore themselves? Or own up. 

This is a story we have come to be familiar with in our age of social media and the book delves deep into themes about family, wealth, power and class – as well as morality, human nature, social games and spoiled children. While the book literally centres around a family in the ‘middle class’ the themes are much more universal and less politically heavy-handed than is may be suggested by the Guardian. 

Our unfolding story is told through the eyes of Paul: who is a classic unreliable narrator. While he seems like the perfect voice of reason, disparaging his pretentious indulgent brother and his wife, his voice reveals him as being envious and holding resentment for the hollow world his brother has succeeded in; the superficialty, self-indulgence and pointlessly lavish pretense. Paul himself is bookish, righteous and filled with envy; secretly resenting his brother’s success out of a need to feel validated himself, thus rejecting everything about his brother to an objectively irrational degree. 

Koch cleverly leads the reader into the world of the modern human- a reflection on our very own human nature; our growing selfishness and a view into the roots of our modern world. Our willingness to play social games which circle entirely upon appearance, and have very little to do with substance (or morality). Could Paul lay as a reflection our ourselves? A Wilde like play on the paradox of our search for wealth, power and, more concisely, validation? 

Each character, from Serge, Paul, Claire and Babette to the nervous manager (with well-groomed hands), all seem carefully constructed to give us deep and rich insight into the humans around the table, those serving them, and those attached by blood. 

The book is broken down into 5 sections, each representing a different course: the aperitif, the appetiser, the main course, the dessert and digestif. Each are detailed by Koch in lavish metaphorical detail, each used as a mode to further the plot and signal the subliminal messages about those surrounding the table.

At first glance, many of the details that Koch focuses on may seem like pretentious pointless descriptions, but they do seem carefully constructed – either to overwhelm us with pretentious detail, or carefully expose Paul, our narrator. 

In my mind, the charm of this book is not the storyline, which is quite predictable and uses motifs you’ll find in many other stories searching a similar vein. What makes me think that the point of this book lays within the details, is the great care and attention given the the sometimes verbose articulations and descriptions, and the great detail given to the food. 

Overall, this book is charming and worth a read on a sunday afternoon. 


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