About this time last week, I was ready to publish my review on Herman Koch’s The Dinner. I didn’t much care for it. I found the premise interesting, but the execution woeful. The structure of the novel irritated me, and the narrator was so unreliable, it made me question the worth of listening to his story at all. Whilst this raised some interesting questions about narrative reliability generally, questions, which in all honesty, made my head hurt, the book overall, failed to sustain my interest.
I was about to let The Dinner have it with both barrel,s but then Alan at Words of Mercury posted his thoughts on the book. If you don’t follow Alan then you should; he always offers unexpected viewpoints and describes them with rare eloquence. His review was as thoughtful as ever, but disturbingly, largely positive. He clearly found something in the book I had not.
Thanks to Twitter, I was able to talk to him about his experience and compare it to mine. After a short exchange, a couple of things fell into place, mostly to do with the unreliability of the narrator. OK, I still didn’t think much of The Dinner as a book, but I couldn’t help but notice my desperate need to talk about it. My wife also read it, and as soon as I’d finished, I had to seek her out, to question her, to find out what she thought. Would she validate my opinions or offer an alternative view?
In turn, this had me thinking about the act of reading in a vacuum. Normally, I read, digest and review without any external input. Indeed, I usually actively avoid outside influence so as not to colour my judgement, but can a book properly be analysed without discussing it? Should a prospective reader of a book ever take a single person’s viewpoint before making a decision? Well, probably not. I almost never buy a book without looking at several reviews, positive and negative, but is this enough?
Each single review is a discrete view. A host of review brings out something like agreement, but only a discussion can bring about true consensus. This of course is one of the draws of a book group. Read a book alone, understand it together. I’ve often gone into a book group with one view of a book and come out with another. My views have be affected both positively and negatively.
What does this mean with respect to The Dinner? Well I didn’t enjoy it, but I have spent a lot of time talking about it, and trying to understand it. It is, therefore, rather hard to argue convincingly that it’s a bad book. It’s divisive, which is clearly the author’s intention, but maybe in more ways than he imagined. I find it hard to recommend reading The Dinner, but if you do then I strongly suggest you do so in a group. You may well find the discussion goes on for a lot longer than a three course meal.
What I didn’t like.
- The narrative is not just a single dinner party, but a series of flashbacks and reminiscences. I think the book would have been far more interesting if it were confined to the table
- Given the history revealed, it’s hard to imagine this dinner party ever being agreed to by all parties
- Characterisation is off kilter. Nobody feels real.
- Unbelievable representation of medical facts.
What I liked.
- The inclusion of an adopted son gives an interesting angle on nature vs nurture.
- The questioning of whether parents know what’s best for their children.
- It’s funny.
Whilst I didn’t enjoy The Dinner, the question of the reliability of Paul’s story has plagued me since I put it down. The idea of him skewing the nature vs nurture debate to absolve himself from his family’s breakdown is fascinating. We all rewrite our histories. Some of us go to more extremes than others.
Many Thanks to Alison at Atlantic Books for providing me with a copy for review.