Dinner with Dorrigo

I approached this month’s Book Club with a slight feeling of trepidation as our first choice was one that I had put forward. I’d actually forgotten as it was over 6 months ago that I had done so, so it was quite a surprise when I heard that it was on the list. The reason I did so was due to a conversation I had with my sister many moons ago, who recommended it with the disclaimer that it would be ‘perfect for a book club’ because of the ambiguous ending. As a veteran of 2 book clubs I heeded her advice and so we sat down to The Dinner by Herman Koch. I have to admit I had never heard of the novel before, but having delved into its background it had something of a controversial reputation. And on reading I can see why. There is a sense of underlying dread throughout the novel that is quite unsettling, but the real storm comes from the sudden and explicable passages of violence that punctuate the story. I don’t have much of a problem with violence in any form of media but the supreme quality of Koch’s writing and his perfect judge of pace means that when the violence comes it is genuinely shocking. The conversation starter of the novel is the ending – it is very much a ‘What would you do in that situation?’ discussion that did get a lot of traction around of the table. A big part of the contrasting viewpoints is that the novel is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. Reading between the lines of Paul’s narrative was a great source of discussion and a couple of points put forward forced me to reconsider some of the conclusions I had drawn. So a highly recommended read, and proved to me that my dear sister was absolutely spot on in her judgement. Our second choice was something of an Australian heavyweight, Richard Flanagan’s recent Booker winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is primarily a novel about the building of the Burma Railway in WW2, but it is also a poignant love story and a discourse on the power of memory. I read the novel whilst on holiday, where I spent a couple of days in bed with a sickness bug. This was unfortunate as the long section of the book describing the fate of the Diggers in Burma is one of the most graphic and visceral I’ve read, which didn’t help in my recovery. This is not to say that the writing is gratuitous. The descriptions of the injuries the men suffered and the constant rain are superbly drawn and harrowing to read. The horror of life for the soldiers comes across page by page in a relentless manner that is close to overwhelming. These scenes are juxtaposed by a haunting affair that takes place between the main character Dorrigo Evans and his uncle’s wife. There is a sadness in their coupling and in some way their frenzied desire is illuminated by the war. Dorrigo is forever trying to remember and re-discover the moments of eternity that he felt in that relationship and the inevitable knowledge that this is a failed dream envelopes the novel. It’s a beautiful sadness and leads to a heartbreaking decision at the novel’s conclusion. But somehow, it feels like an affirmation of life, how beauty survives in the most extraordinary of circumstances.