The only place I can begin is here: I feel a little traumatized after reading this excellent novel. If you're looking for likable characters, you should read Anne of Green Gables. I started squirming by the end of aperitifs, and never ever felt comfortable about being enthralled by these characters. But I was: a little in thrall to them.
Some of the praise blurbs call this novel a satire, but I think that whenever we read something unsettling we like to call it satire for our own peace of mind. Okay, okay, American Psycho actually was satire, but is was also pretty disgusting: you had to have a really strong stomach to get through it. [I did get through it, BTW, but not without some maliciously lingering psychic effects.] Swift's edible babies may have hatched satire in the form it often takes in Western literature, but, sometimes a story is so unnerving that you can't fit it neatly into any category, and voilà! -- it becomes "satire."
In any case, I didn't read any of this novel as satire -- especially since some of the brutality of certain characters is caused by an unnamed neurological disorder, which allows the reader to kind of -- not empathize with -- but to almost comprehend such despicable behaviors and ideologies. When you get down to it, we understand behaviors attached to mental illness, but it's those ideologies that become the most incomprehensible, what makes this novel so disturbing. We are bathed in real-life violence every day, if we look at all to the news. But reporters don't tell us about the inner lives of the perpetrators.
As for The Dinner, what initially appears to be a typical evening shared by two couples takes turn after terrible turn -- the more the reader finds out about these people... well, you'll see. The novel is hung on the casual, gradual unveiling of ghastly events, so I won't do any of that unveiling before you may have read it.
The pace was right, the order of each non-chronological revelation was perfect, and some mysteries are left unsolved. There is narrative resolution, but really? Nothing feels satisfactorily resolved. And that's the thing we may think, as readers, that we're owed: satisfaction, gratification, assurance that the world and its denizens are, at the core, wonderful beings.
But still, there's something disturbingly bewitching about this deviant little love story, for ultimately, that's what it is: an exceedingly happy family who will do anything to maintain that happiness. Right from the start the narrator invokes that line from Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This story reads as the author's counterpoint to Tolstoy's idea, illustrating how happy families, too, may be happy in their own sinister ways.
- Originally published in 2009 (Netherlands)
- Translated by Sam Garrett (translation copyright 2012)
- 292 pages
- February 2 - 4, 2014