Sometimes certain stories are good for one’s soul: they enable readers to embrace the beautiful mess of it means to be human, or perhaps invite them into a corner of existence they would not have known or understood otherwise. The Dinner by Herman Koch is not that book. It is structured over dinner in a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. The narrator Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge, a popular candidate in an upcoming national election, and his wife to discuss a crime their sons committed together, which isn’t named until much later in the story. I’m not sure that I would describe it as a psychological thriller, exactly, because it didn’t read like a standard crime novel, but it was brilliantly psychological in its narration in that the voice we are hearing is not a detective or the criminal, but a parent, who is one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve read.
On the surface level, the question raised throughout the book is: to what length should parents go to protect their children and at what age do children become responsible for their own actions? On a deeper level, it is a novel of a man with little empathy grappling with his own psychological struggles that he is now forced to see in his son. As he travels back through memory, the reader is sucked into his worldview and as we hear events from Paul’s perspective it is easy to align with his thinking. At first. And so perhaps it’s a book about the ability to become a victim of manipulation or good storytelling. And then it becomes a book that leaves you scraping your jaw off the ground as you watch people cooly making completely unethical decisions.
The quandaries faced in this book reminded me of the mystery I read earlier this year, Defending Jacob, where the narrator’s son is on trial for committing murder and the family has to grapple with whether he is guilty or not, despite the public face they put on for the trial. Both books also touch on psychopathy, which adds a fascinating and frightening angle to the crimes and the families themselves.
As a closing note, it was interesting to learn that this book was much better received in Europe than in the United States–apparently the average American reader is much more interested in a story that has likable characters and more cathartic closure.