“You expecting to palm this off as some kind of accident?”
“No. It wasn’t an accident.”
“I thought we discussed this.”
“That’s what we didn’t do. Discuss it. You went on a tirade. You wouldn’t listen… but I was right and you were wrong.”
“This is the most presumptuous…arrogant thing you’ve ever done.”
“Yes. I guess it is”
― Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin
When I first sat down to write this piece I ended up staring at a blank screen for quite a while. I was at a loss as to the best place to start this review. It is not very often that I don’t like a book. But its not that I didn’t like this book – I just didn’t care about it that much and I found that quite hard to deal with as I knew I had to sit down and write something but my fear of offending someone (like the author) was holding me back.
We need to Talk about Kevin is the seventh novel for bestselling author Lionel Shriver. The success of this novel is quite astounding considering its rise in popularity began with a word-of-mouth conversation. Shriver’s first literary agent refused to publish the manuscript as the American market was a little ‘thin-skinned’ after 9/11 – understandably so. How did this horror story become one of the most talked about literary novels resulting in an award winning film at the Cannes Film Festival? In a world where disaster is all around us, the rise of social media has only fuelled our insatiable curiousity at the morbid, the dangerous, and the malevolent side of human nature. Eva says “listening to Kevin’s diatribe, I was struck despite myself by what a sizable proportion of our species feeds off the depravity of a handful of reprobates, if not to make a living then to pass the time” (page 418). I think the success of this novel comes down to the fact that despite the horror, we naturally want to understand the intentions of others and Shriver’s ideas in We need to Talk about Kevin are very different from other books on similar topics – they’re taboo. Shriver challenges the moral questions around motherhood and through Eva, details the ‘downsides’ of parenthood. I have not read a novel before that so honestly catalogues the failures and challenges of motherhood as starkly as Shriver does.
We need to Talk about Kevin is told from Eva’s perspective as she reflects on the life of her son Kevin and the series of events that led to him murdering more than nine people in a high school shooting. Through her letters to her absent husband, Eva recounts the story of how Kevin came to be. Eva is a complex character; she is self-possessed, career driven, ambivalent towards motherhood and openly hostile towards her son. From the moment he is born, Eva fails to bond with her son and continues to do so over the course of his childhood. She fears that there is something innately wrong with Kevin and senses that, even as an infant, his behaviour is intent on making her as miserable as possible. I found Eva to be an extremely unreliable narrator. I could not decide if she was intelligent and insightful or just as cold and malevolent as her son as she fluctuates between anger, self-pity and regret. In saying that, I don’t know if any of the characters would have done any better. Eva’s husband Franklin is incredibly frustrating with his short-sightedness when it comes to his son and his ignorant view on fatherhood particularly when he fails to see the way his own son constantly mocks him and his ideas.
Kevin is a fascinating character and I congratulate Shriver on the construction of him from the inside out. Kevin appears to be a mirror of sorts – his mockery and exasperation with the adult world reflects the behaviours of those around him. Eva’s tirade about the American way of life provokes Kevin into saying ‘as far as I can tell, about the only thing that keeps you and the other dumb-ass Americans from being peas in a pod is you’re not fat. And just because you’re skinny you act self-righteous – condescending – and superior. Maybe I’d rather have a big cow of a mother who at least didn’t think she was better than everybody else in the fucking country.” Eva dislikes her son so much because he is a reflection of her true self.
Stylistically, I loved this book. Shriver maintains an atmospheric tone and mood throughout the story that is reminiscent of classic horror films. She is evocative with her language and the epistolary form works perfectly for the story she wanted to tell. Letter writing is an intimate and nuanced form of conversation that has the ability to reveal truths as one reads between the lines of what is and isn’t said.
Overall the arguments in We need to Talk about Kevin come down to the age-old nature versus nurture. Was any character wholly responsible for what Kevin did? I agree with Shriver’s comments in one of her articles where she states that the book “cleave[s groups] into ferocious camps: one convinced that the boy was evil from day one, the other just as convinced that his mother’s coldness was criminally culpable.” Whose side are you on?
On a lighter note, the next two book club books are Wool by Hugh Howey to be discussed from December 1st and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Lesley Walton to be discussed from January 5th.
Over to you – what did you think?