Saturday, July 21, 2018
Books

Review: Family secrets on menu in Herman Koch's The Dinner

It's just dinner at a high-end Amsterdam restaurant: two brothers, their wives, a little wine, a little talk. What could happen? By the last page of The Dinner, Herman Koch's suspenseful and sometimes disturbing novel, the better question is: What didn't?

The hook is set early when the narrator, Paul Lohman, wonders how the evening would have turned out if he had not ventured into his son's room before dinner and seen something on the boy's cellphone. "Would the smell of happiness I inhaled from my wife's hair still have smelled only like happiness, and not, as it did now, like some distant memory — like the smell of something you could lose just like that?"

At the restaurant, Paul and Claire meet Paul's brother, Serge, a prominent politician in line for the prime ministership, and his wife, Babette. The two couples each have a son aged 15; Serge and Babette also have a younger daughter and an adopted teenage son, Beau, from Africa.

The four have gathered to talk about the boys, but at the outset no one is sure what anyone else knows about what has happened. Behind Babette's tinted glasses it looks like she's been crying.

What has happened? Of that, the less said the better. Readers are advised to avert their eyes from dust jacket summaries, online reviews and other potential spoiler sources. Much of the pleasure in this novel derives from Koch's skill with structure and suspense, which leads readers to eagerly unpeel the onion of this family, layer by layer, all the way to the (rotten? happy?) core. It's enough to say that it's no accident the films Straw Dogs and Deliverance make an appearance in the text.

Through the course of the meal, Paul critiques the restaurant's rigmarole. The manager points with his pinkie while describing the ingredients and their origins. Paul can't stand his brother's sniffling and gargling of wine. He's appalled by the vast foodless spaces on their plates. The dainty, ritualized atmosphere forms a stark contrast to the anger bubbling beneath the surface.

The novel, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, covers a lot of ground between aperitif and digestif: racism, homelessness, capital punishment, genetics.

Down at the human level, Koch puts a powerful microscope on the workings of a family in crisis. But after all the words spilled across the dinner table, it may be what isn't said that allows people to carry on. As Paul finds, "Secrets didn't get in the way of happiness."

Mike Fasso is a Times staff writer.

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