The Dinner

The Dinner - Herman Koch, Sam Garrett I saw this title on some best of 2013 list somewhere and decided to check it out from the library. I’m glad I can return it. I generally don’t read in the mystery genre, nor do I read much by Dutch authors. Koch kind of rode the Larsson train into American crime fiction, from what I understand, or pre-dated it, but barely. Yet I don’t feel like this is really a crime novel in the typical sense as it’s explained directly what happened and who did it by the middle of the novel. The only mystery is what anybody is going to do about it. This is more of a character drama, and less takes place at the eponymous dinner than one might hope. I expected, based off the jacket copy, a tightly packed satire of manners at a dinner where every word has significance or double meaning. I was expecting that, gradually, the acid behind the words would be explained, culminating in the great reveal at the end of the dinner.I guess that’s what I get for expecting to read what the jacket describes (I really should know better by now). The is a dinner, and there are cutting words and meaningful looks and glances exchanged, but it’s not quite up to The Dowager’s snuff (see Downton Abbey). Instead, through the eyes of what becomes an increasingly unsympathetic narrator (Paul), we are given to understand that something happened, something bad, that involved his son and his brother’s biological son (the brother has an adopted son as well, who will make brief appearances). The dinner was called for and arranged, to Paul’s great annoyance, by his brother, Serge and Serge’s wife Babette (for reals). This is the overarching frame for the narrative, which is broken into sections by meal course. Accordingly, the main course is when we learn exactly what that bad thing that happened was, and the apertif is the aftermath of those actions.But the bulk of the narrative is taken up with Paul’s flashbacks to different times where Serge was an asshole, where Paul was an asshole, when Paul’s life almost fell apart due to his wife Claire’s unexpected illness, when he thinks about the father that he could have, and probably should have, been. But Paul has his own issues, which he sort of talks about, hints at, somewhat reveals, yet never fully deals with. If he had, perhaps, nothing would have happened with his son. Legacy is part of the question of the book: a father’s legacy to his son, both inherited and taught. But it’s really only the reader who sees this. While Paul is certainly capable of analyzing (and explaining) the most minute facial tic of his wife or his brother, he is not very capable of analyzing his own behavior or actions.If we’re calling this a mystery or crime novel (and I’m not married to the idea that we are), the biggest reveal is Paul and Claire’s true character. It is slow and accumulative, and told through Paul’s eyes, and therefore not completely trust-worthy. Paul is not a traditional unreliable narrator, but as the novel progressed, I found myself wanting to get farther and farther away from him because I didn’t like where he was going. I suppose that that is the best thing about the novel; initially we are wholly sympathetic to Paul and his wife and their son, but over the course of dinner (narrative time), his crazy becomes increasingly more apparent. Yet his crazy is not outlandish at all, and his actions, on the one hand are somewhat understandable. On the other, they are also is if not ethically reprehensible, incredibly lazy and cowardly. Yes, I am passing judgement here; the reader is clearly invited to. Other readers might judge differently.Overall, the book was compelling; I finished it in a couple of days. It stayed with me after I finished, but it left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, and like I said, I’m glad I can take it back to the library. This is really my first foray into crime fiction from the Great North, and one day I might come back to it. But right now, I think I’ll stick to my historical fiction.