I shall have to tread carefully with this one, as one false word and I'll spoil everything...
Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner in a fancy restaurant in Amsterdam. The air is thick with history and old resentments as they greet and exchange pleasantries, putting off the real reason why they are there; they need to discuss their troubled children.
I love an unreliable narrator, and Paul is as unreliable as they come. What seems to be simple fraternal irritation at his brother Serge's mannerisms and the persona he's adopted to enhance his political career soon become something deeper, darker. At first you chuckle along as he grows irritated with the niggly details of fine dining and the related pretensions. However, as the story progresses, there is clearly more to Paul's pedantry than meets the eye.
Paul's descriptions of his oafish brother and his faux sophistication, his weariness with pretentious waiters and his sharp observations as his thoughts meander made this book almost comedic in its first half. Indeed, for me it had Dutch echoes of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's tour of Northern eateries in The Trip. Then, slowly and subtly, the observations and Paul's recounted reactions adopt a darker turn, less everyday, and you start to question just how much you do relate to Paul after all...
I found this a brilliantly dark read and a real journey; from one page to the next I had no idea where I would end up. Herman Koch creates a false sense of security throughout, then throws in twist after twist, each one still catching you out every time. This book had me truly gripped and the ending left me genuinely surprised. The one thing you couldn't criticise The Dinner for is being predictable.
There are quite a few loose ends in this story; a lot of the tales told are quite fragmented, as Paul dictates exactly what you as a reader need to know. I'm not sure how I felt about this as a narrative style and it's something I know I'll dwell on later. I would love to have known better the character of Claire, Paul's wife, but she was something of an enigma and my main criticism would be that I never really knew what made her tick. In some ways this is a tale of strong males where females blend into the background. I'm not sure if this is particularly a criticism, however, as this was perhaps more a reflection of the strong narrator and his equally strong resentment for his brother.
So, all in all, I would highly recommend The Dinner as a rush hour read for its subtle twists and subplots, somehow managing to be a slowburner and a rollercoaster all in one. Definitely a fine foray into the world of Dutch literature!
(Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle and audio through Amazon. For more information on this and other great reads, please visit the Atlantic Books website)