Archive for January, 2013

‘The Dinner’ leaves readers less than satisfied

When only six of our hardy reading group turn out for our meeting in early January, it’s hard to guess whether it’s because of the choice of book or the time of year. Probably, there’s an element of both.
But, as usual, we sustained an interesting debate on Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. The novel has been likened to similar highly successful novels such as The Slap and We Need to Talk about Kevin.
The anxiety I always have about these kind of novels – which seem to be typical book group fare – is the danger of lapsing into a rather redundant debate about the moral issues, rather than concentrating on the literary merits (or otherwise). We did fall into that trap for some of the discussion.
Glynis did enjoy the novel and found it funny. She also found the accounts of upper middle-class over-protective parenting and the behaviour of the families when on holiday in France particularly credible and amusing. Paula, who read the book on holiday, also found it an easy read and that it raised some interesting issues.
But almost all of us found the overall work dissatisfying, particularly in comparison to other works that follow a rather similar plot. For Mike, Lionel Shriver and Christos Tsiolkas did a better job of examining the issues. We also felt that a recent film, Carnage, covered similar ground.
Certainly we agreed that we were pulled into the plot and read to the end to find out what happened. But for me, that was the novel’s only saving grace. I found the language flat and clunky, and at times annoyingly repetitive, although I accept this may have been a problem with the translation rather than the original Dutch.
I also felt the notion of ghastly middle-class parents stopping at nothing to protect their offspring is becoming something of a tired old trope and this felt rather derivative of those other works.

The nature-versus-nurture debate was tackled much more originally in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and at least she examined it from a partly-feminist point of view. Here, I felt that Koch excused the father by dint of his ‘illness’ and that the real dark, controlling heart of the family was the mother – yawn. (The mystery illness was a particular cop-out, I thought, and like the rest of the group I was unconvinced by it).
For me the characters were caricatures, almost entirely unpleasant with barely a saving grace between them, except a misguided urge to protect each other. Koch left the reader with no choice as to who to ‘hate’ and with a black-and-white moral issue. It would have been much more interesting if the boys had done something where their culpability was more debatable. And some suggestion that the urge to protect or defend one’s child is universal, not just a middle-class sin, would have been welcome.
I’m not sure if the societal comment felt more relevant to a Dutch reader. For an English readership I felt it pressed some very ‘easy’ buttons.

I will leave the last word to Martin, who e-mailed this comment: “I found the book unreadable. The narrator was so consumed with angst and envy I wanted to perform extreme violence against him. He was so annoying I couldn’t care what his grouse was and could not bring myself to spend any more time in his company to see what happened. I got to chapter 3 after several attempts then gave up. I hope the next book is better.”
Barbara

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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