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2013 Books in Translation

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

Five words from the blurb: teenage, sons, crime, protect, responsibility

The Dinner is a fast paced roller coaster of a read. It is set over a single evening in which two couples get together for dinner in a fancy restaurant. They need to discuss what to do about their teenage sons, who have committed a terrible crime. Over the course of the evening the reader slowly finds out what happened and sees the effect this has on the different members of the family. 

The book is a psychological thriller that looks at parental responsibility and questions how far parents should go to protect their children. The dynamics of the relationships between the different individuals were captured perfectly and it was interesting to see how their interactions changed as they revealed secrets to each other.

There were wonderful snippets of humor and observational insight, particularly around restaurant etiquette. This added a lightness that prevented the otherwise dark subject matter from becoming overbearing:

The guests, however, pretended not to notice; in a restaurant where you had to pay ten euros for the apertif of the house, the rules of etiquette probably didn’t allow for an open display of recognition. They all seemed to lean a few fractions of an inch closer to their plates, all apparently doing their best at the same time to forge ahead with their conversations, to avoid falling silent, because the volume of the general hubbub increased audibly as well.

I can’t fault the structure or pacing of the book, but I’m afraid that the content was dwarfed by the genius of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Although The Dinner was highly entertaining, it didn’t have the same emotional impact as Kevin and it failed to add anything new to the discussion on parental responsibility. I also found the twists towards the end a little unrealistic and so this reduced my enjoyment of it slightly. 

I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a gripping read. It has more depth than the average thriller and the number of discussion points make it the perfect book club choice.  

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a very well-balanced read, that touched a number of different taste buds. Kevin from Canada

There are many inner monologues that, while interesting, halt the flow. Dog Ear Discs

The repressed violence and cold manipulation that infects and bursts out of the characters in The Dinner is chilling. Words of Mercury

21 replies on “The Dinner by Herman Koch”

This one sound great when you describe it. It’s been on my radar anyway, but your review reminded me of the book What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt that dealt with the parent’s reaction/responsibility when a son has committed a crime. Fascinating subject even if these books sound very different beyond that basic idea.

Andi, I haven’t read What I Loved, but I enjoy reading all books that deal with parental responsibility so I’ll add it to my list. Thanks for the recommendation!

I guess I didn’t see this book so much as a statement on parental responsibility, but was gripped more by how totally unreliable the narrator was. Just when you think you know who you are dealing with, he would throw in another zinger. I would say the story was more about HIM than the kids! I loved this book. It kept me on my toes.

Sandy, You are right. The book was more about the father, but I was drawn towards the parental responsibility aspects and enjoyed these sections. The father’s story didn’t feel as realistic as it could have been and so although it was a bit creepy it didn’t wow me as much as it could have done. Glad you enjoyed it.

Laura, One day I hope something will come along to top Kevin, but I can’t see if happening very often. It is the gold standard I compare all these books to and not many get near it.

If you loved this one, check out another that Sam Garrett also recently translated (different author, same translator) that’s just as chilling called Tirza. We ran a review of it recently, but I won’t spam a link here. It’s a tough call between the two. but ultimately I think that Tirza is the better read.

A hit with me too Jackie. I loved this book. I cannot understand all the 1 star reviews on Amazon…., words like “dull” did not come to mind!!!
Does having children make the difference? I think having a 14 year old running around with a cell phone out there, (being up to who knows what), helped.
I just couldn’t shake that “what if” feeling that the author toyed with so well. I loved the disparity between the farcical ongoings in the restaurant and the dark reality of what was going on in the streets. The fact that our children come from good homes, go to good schools, have good friends , no financial issues and doting parents is no longer enough. The whole thing felt too close to home, sent chills down my spine and made me panic. A great read.
Need to read Kevin which has been on my shelf for years now. And thank you Aaron for recommending Tirza.

Ifi, No, I can’t understand why people would describe this as dull either! I can understand criticisms about it being unrealistic and a bit over the top, but never dull!

I do think that having children helps to give these books more impact. I expect that Kevin will really freak you out as it is far scarier than this. Let’s hope that our children never do anything like this. *fingers crossed*

Do come back and let me know what you think of Kevin and Tirza :-)

Glad you enjoyed this. I thought it was brilliant. I didn’t read “Kevin” so I can’t compare. But mainly I loved, absolutely loved, the observations of the father – as you did. The story’s ending was a bit too much for me, but in all, I thought it was a very good book.

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