We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

>> Monday, July 23, 2012

TITLE: We Need To Talk About Kevin
AUTHOR: Lionel Shriver

PAGES: 468
PUBLISHER: Serpent's Tail

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

The gripping international bestseller about motherhood gone awry

Eva never really wanted to be a mother—and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.
I've always found the idea of this book fascinating, but never dared to read it. It's a story narrated by a woman whose son carried out a school massacre, which sounded like it would be really heavy. But then my friend H. dragged me to see the film, and I thought it was fantastic. And what she said about how it differed from the book made me want to read it immediately.

The narrator is Eva Khatchadourian. Eva never particularly wanted children and she always loved her life just the way it was, with her exciting career, the husband she loved and their very fulfilling sex life. But then, after a while, he started indicating he wanted kids, and she ends up convincing herself that this is something she needed to do. It's a disaster from the start. She and Kevin never bond, and as he grows up, it's clearer and clearer to her that there is something wrong with him, despite the fact that her husband thinks he's a perfectly normal and lovely little kid. We see all this through letters Eva writes to her husband, Franklin, a couple of years after the day Kevin went into school and wreaked havoc in so many people's lives.

I don't know if this is a book one can say one loved, but I can say I thought it was brilliant. Even more than the film, and I thought the film was the best one I watched last year.

We know from the start what happened, the basics of what Kevin did, but Shriver doles out the more painful details slowly. I wasn't surprised by the big revelation (obviously, having seen the film), but that didn't mean the book worked any less well. It provides a different experience from the film, though.

The main difference was in the ambiguity. In the book, it's never quite clear whether Eva was the only one who could see the real Kevin and the evil in him, or whether Kevin became what he did because (or even partly because) his mother couldn't stand him from the start and showed it. As we were coming out of the cinema, that was the main thing my friend said, that there was less ambiguity in the film than in the book, since we actually see Kevin and his demeanour, and don't rely on Eva's memories (I guess you could say that what we see is filtered through Eva's memories, but never mind).

The funny thing was that I identified so profoundly with Eva that I took her side automatically. Even though, intellectually, I could see what Shriver was doing and that a months-old baby couldn't really be plotting to undermine his mum, Eva is such a fantastic, charismatic character that she sucked me in. I ended up almost hating Franklin, for being so blind to the reality of his son and for, as soon as the kid is born, putting Eva in the "Mum" role and refusing to see her as anything other than that.

Eva's honesty in those letters to Franklin was painful and heart-wrenching, very difficult to read, but rewarding. Because there is so much gut-wrenching truth here, plenty of painful feelings, which feel instinctively true, even though I've never been in that situation. Things like the horrible loss of power when you do something wrong to someone who's previously been in the wrong themselves, and they take it easy on you.

A disturbing book, but one I'm very, very glad I read.



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