It is rare to find an international bestseller that doesn't have a single likeable character in it but Dutch writer Herman Koch has managed it. His 2009 novel The Dinner (Text $37) has sold nearly a million copies so far and is now available in English.
Essentially, it is about nasty people doing horrible things; it is the issues in this story, rather than the characters, that are designed to engage. The book is set during an awkward dinner at a fancy restaurant. Paul Lohman, the story's narrator, is dreading this meal with his charismatic politician brother, Serge, and their wives. He is chippy about his brother's success, contemptuous of pretentious eateries, and hates smalltalk. But this night something more serious is bothering him. Shortly before leaving home Paul has watched a horrifying piece of video on his son Michel's mobile phone and now the happiness of his family is threatened.
Serge's sons are also involved in this outrage. "We need to talk about our children," he tells Paul over dinner - but only after they have covered the more innocuous ground of the latest movies and of their exercise regimes.
No one is entirely who they seem in The Dinner, especially Paul. Adroitly, Koch takes us inside his head and gradually exposes the man he is. At first he appears harmless enough - just another sneering inverted snob with a superiority complex. His observations are as amusing as they are cynical (particularly during a scene in the men's urinal). But as the appetisers arrive and the main course follows, the truth trickles out. We learn Paul is a failed teacher and a dangerous narcissist with a capacity for hate and violence.
His wife, Claire, appears the only decent person at the table but that is because we are viewing her through Paul's eyes. When we discover what their teenage sons have been up to, and a threat made to turn them in, do we get to see everyone in a new light.
The premise is one that has been well used by other writers: what if your kids did something awful? Would you protect them at all costs, or let them face the consequences?
What marks this book as different is its scathing and darkly satirical tone. It's been compared with The Slap, by Chris Tsiolkas, and to Lionel Shriver's work, in that the plot lends itself to robust debate and has plenty of meat in it for book clubs.
I didn't enjoy the experience of reading The Dinner, yet I was riveted by it. It is the literary equivalent of driving past a traffic accident and being unable to avert your eyes even though you know what you will see is unpleasant, even tragic. A disturbing, compelling and sometimes frustrating read.