We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Where on earth do I start with this book? Something in Shriver’s writing style just caught me by the throat and dragged me in – it’s similar to way I write in a way and that is probably why it hooked me so quickly. Aside from being an absolute bloody masterpiece on top of that.
The entire book is made up of an internal monologue of a woman named Eva in the form of letters to her husband and revolves around her son, Kevin. Mere days before his 16th birthday, Kevin goes on a murderous rampage and kills seven of his fellow high school students and a teacher with a crossbow. The book follows Eva’s journey through motherhood as she looks bath on Kevin’s conception, birth and childhood and struggles to understand whether his actions are partly her fault. What passes in this novel can be referred to as the ‘darker side’ of motherhood and is undoubtedly what many women – especially those who don’t desire children anyway, including myself – fear. Eva never sincerely wanted to be a mother; she doesn’t enjoy pregnancy and fails to bond with her child upon his birth – even as a newborn, Kevin seems averse to his mother, rejecting her breast milk and crying incessantly, hatefully all day. Whereas the husband, Franklin, is an enthusiastic and loving father, Eva fails to bond with her son as he grows and is the only one to witness the cold, difficult, hateful and arguably sociopathic behaviour of their son.
I always tend to avoid damaging a books pages by bending them down for later reference but my copy is plump from the volume of pages I have folded down to look back on sentences, paragraphs, descriptions that I found just painfully captivating. Eva is an extremely likeable character; strong, independent and with an urge to explore the world, I couldn’t help but admire the fact she wanted to hold on to her free bohemian lifestyle, her successful travel book business and the simplicity of love between two people being more than sufficient without involving children. As the novel progresses though, you do become concious of the fact that Eva is not necessarily a reliable narrator – she doesn’t necessarily always tell us the truth and may have had her own motives for painting Kevin so poorly.
Ultimately the reader is left to make a decision; does Kevin behave the way he does due to Eva’s actions? Her coldness? Or is Kevin just an outright horrible human being? An afterword from Shriver mentions that the readers of her book fall into one of those two categories – blaming Eva or just believing Kevin is downright evil. Honestly? I’m the latter. Unreliable narrator or not, the fact the book is entirely from her perspective made me feel closer to Eva; I felt her frustrations, her disappointments, her anger and although I knew I was being programmed to feel certain things about certain characters – Franklin, for example, with his stereotypical “American Dream” of a happy family with a nice house and picket fences is painfully dull and close minded compared to well-travelled Eva – I still felt that despite that, I firmly stood behind Eva. Shriver undoubtedly intended for us to take sides. To me, the disinterest in the mother and son relationship is shared by both parties and not purely a by-product of Eva’s coldness – there is too much wrong with Kevin, too many purely malicious acts and behaviours to ignore or to blame on anyone but himself.
I would be sincerely intrigued to hear a man’s perspective on this book as I suspect that being female and not desiring children either made me relate with Eva a lot more whereas a man might see her completely differently. I will be forcing this book on my boyfriend so I can have his opinion on it.
Here are a few fragments of the book that really spoke to me and had to be shared:
“Though it may be more romantic the bereaved as gaunt, I imagine you can grieve as efficiently with chocolates as with tap water. Besides, there are women who keep themselves sleek and smartly turned out less to please a spouse than to keep up with a daughter and, thanks to is, she lacks that incentive.”
“What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child?”
“…it’s amazing that with the advent of effective contraception that anyone chooses to reproduce at all”
“This is why people smoke, I thought”
“Casting my own eye down Fifth Avenue as my belly swelled, I would register with incredulity; Every one of those people came from a woman’s cunt. In my head, I used the crudest word I could, to bring home the point. Like the purpose of breasts, it’s one of those flaring facts we tend to suppress.”
“Ever notice how many films portray pregnancy as infestation, as colonization by stealth? Rosemary’s Baby was just the beginning. In Alien a foul extraterrestrial claws it’s way out of John Hurt’s belly.”
“For all our squinting at the two sexes to blur them into duplicates, few hearts race when passing gaggles of giggling schoolgirls. But any woman who passes a clump of testosterone-drunk punks without picking up the pace, without avoiding the eye contact that might connote challenge or invitation, without sighing inwardly with relief by the following block, is a zoological fool. A boy is a dangerous animal.”
“Oh, Franklin, there is no use pretending now. It was awful. I may be capable of toughness in respect to certain kinds of pain, but if so, my fortitude dwells in my calves or forearms but not between my legs”
“From the very beginning that child was particular to me…to me he was never “the baby”. He was a singular, unusually cunning individual who had arrived to stay with us and just happened to be very small”
And I’m going to stop quoting excerpts of the book now as I sense I’m getting carried away. Read it yourself, you’ll see exactly what I mean!
As much as I enjoyed this novel and the writing style it is not, however, a novel to be taken lightly. The subject matter is harrowing, the events of the book disturbing and it is most definitely an emotional rollercoaster for anyone who chooses to pick up a copy. Importantly, most importantly, this book will make you think. Even when I wasn’t reading, I was trying to unpick the characters of the book thread by thread, to understand their thoughts and actions and work out who was really to blame for the events that unfolded. It reaffirmed my already dubious and sceptical feelings about reproducing myself (no thanks) and chilled me to the bone at times. That being said, dark subject matter or not, the book is engrossing and often brought a smile to my face.
Characters aside, the book itself is a very clever observation of American’s attitudes to guns as well as murderous teenagers going on rampages for being bullied, for being dumped by girls, for not achieving well in school etc. and Eva – and I imagine by extension, Shriver – heavily criticises the weakness of these young men. For taking the slightest snub to be justification for a bloody massacre. It mocks the availability of weapons to young people in the states – the sheer absurdity of it and that is another important thing to take from this book.
I will also quickly mention the film – it is very good and although doesn’t manage to convey half of what the book does (a film that covered the book in that much details would take hours upon hours) Tilda Swindon manages to convey so very much about Eva not with dialogue but purely with the power of facial expressions. A must watch.
A definite must read and this book deserves to be hailed as a classic.