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February 26, 2013

‘The Dinner’ juicy, disturbing

— Herman Koch’s dark social satire, “The Dinner” (Hogarth, 2012), can be gulped down all in one sitting. On the exterior it seems like a modern Dutch commentary on the lengths to which today’s parents will go to keep their children from taking responsibility for their actions. A few chapters in and it becomes much more terrifying than enabling parents, liberal society, or the lives of bourgeois Dutch politicians.

Paul Lohman, who relates the story in Koch’s five course novel, is not just an unreliable narrator, he is a well-educated psychopath. When he is thinking right, Paul has some cogent things to say about family dynamics, society, wealth and the common man.

Paul, his wife Claire, and their 15-year-old son seem like the epitome of a happy family. In fact, Paul’s favorite quote is Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The story unfolds at a posh restaurant over dinner as Paul and Claire join Paul’s brother Serge, who is about to declare his candidacy for Prime Minister, and his wife, Babette. Serge has something he wants to discuss with the family. From the aperitif through the digestif, the couples slowly unravel the horrific actions of their 15-year-old sons, Michel and Rick, who have killed a homeless person sleeping in an ATM. A YouTube video posted in an extortion attempt by Serge and Babette’s adopted son, an orphan from Burkina Faso, helps cook up a shocking conclusion.

Koch is a well-known television comedian in Holland, appearing on shows that poke fun at the government and Dutch society. As disturbing as “The Dinner” is, it would provide book clubs with some juicy topics into which to sink their teeth. Sink your teeth into this dinner menu based on Serge and Babette’s main courses in the novel.

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