I took the little book in my hands and turned it over to read the blurb on the back. Called The Dinner, it’s actually a translation of a novel by a Dutch author called Herman Koch (Het Diner, 2009; in English, 2012). Indeed, it did sound interesting and I’d never read a book by a Dutch author before; but I also never read books of that length (a little over 300 pages). I know about the quality/quantity thing, but they’re not worth my while. I prefer weighty tomes, ones that you can get your teeth into − A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), or a Penny Vincenzi (yes – I see some people raising their eyebrows – I enjoy her books; she’s not a bad writer, especially her Spoils of Time trilogy).
“Maybe I’ll buy it next time,” I demurred.
“No,” she insisted. “Buy it now. I’m not sure we’re getting any more in.”
So armed with the small volume, plus the others I’d chosen, I went home.
A few days later, I began the book, but instead of being instantly intrigued, as one might expect to be with a recommended slim work, I was as confused and as frustrated as I sometimes am at the beginning of those 1000+-page sagas I so enjoy − eventually.
It is only very slowly that we learn who the various characters are and what the book is about. Just like the dinner at the very exclusive restaurant where the two couples meet to dine, we are fed information at a leisurely pace and in tiny morsels, beginning with the apertif and ending with the digestive. (The book is actually divided into dinner courses: Apertif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert and Digestive). Although we know there is some terrible secret bubbling under the surface, it is only at Main Course that we learn the full truth behind the polite, bourgeois exteriors of the two couples.
The book is ultimately about the moral dilemma that none of us would hope to face: what to do if we find out that our children have committed a horrendous crime. Do we defend them tooth and nail, at the expense of committing a crime ourselves, or do we go public and hand them over to the authorities? This case, however, is also complicated by the troubled past of the narrator and the political ambitions of the other father (I’m deliberately not giving too much away).
Certainly, the book is amusing (at least in the early stages, with the description of the dishes and the elaborate serving ceremonies) and thought-provoking. Moreover, it gives us a not-too-flattering glimpse into Dutch society. However, the ending is too extreme - probably intentionally so - and ultimately unrealistic. And, the dilemma would have been more interesting without the additional problems of the narrator.
I'm not sure that the insistence of the bookstore assistant was justified, although, overall, the book is worth reading.
And now, if you don't mind, I'll settle down with the real thing - a 1000+ page Penny Vincenzi.