Sunday, December 02, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin

When it first came out in 2003 everyone seemed to be reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. As usual, I'm a couple of years late and have only just gotten around to reading this novel on the tentative advice of a friend who didn't enjoy it much herself.

For anyone else who missed out on it as it swept the bestseller lists, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the letters of a mother, Eva Khatchadhourian, to her husband Franklin. The letters are written after their son, Kevin, has murdered 12 people in a Columbine-style school shooting, and in the letters Eva trawls back through the process of deciding to have a child, Kevin's birth and childhood and his devastating crime, referred to only as Thursday by Eva.

When I began this novel I absolutely hated it. The subject matter is sensational and it seemed that in making Eva unlikable, the author was writing a definitively anti-feminist novel. Shriver explores how far parents are responsible for shaping their children and I worried that she might unfairly blame the mother who initially is depicted as selfish, cold and certainly unenthusiastic about her new-born child.

Shriver's awkward style was also infuriating at first. If these are meant to be letters, they are so painfully and self-consciously written as to seem totally unrealistic. A typical sentence reads: 'It may have been disingenuous of me to imply at the start of my last letter that when we conferred at the end of a day, I told all.'

But somehow I could not put this book down, and I'm pleased that I didn't. Shriver's writing style is never elegant but it reflects certain aspects of her narrator's character and it becomes less jarring over time. More importantly, the philosophical terrain covered becomes more and more compelling as the novel goes on. Initially Kevin is depicted as a purely (and unbelievably) evil child but as he develops we see that there is more to him and realise that Eva is possibly manipulating us by presenting only her side of the story. Eva is not a perfect mother but nor is Franklin, the father, who is blindly optimistic about Kevin and refuses to confront the truth about his son. Shriver refuses to lay blame, avoiding simplistic conclusions about why a child from a relatively happy, privileged background might become the perpetrator of a horrific crime. This concept reminded me of Philip Roth's American Pastoral which covers similar terrain, albeit in a more sophisticated way.

Like Roth, Shriver also examines the idea of America (as opposed to the physical country). Eva rejects her homeland as crass and unsophisticated whereas her husband Franklin is the ultimate patriot, driving his SUV, watching baseball games and trying to develop a pally relationship with his son, as though life can be like a cheesy 1950's sitcom if only you try hard enough. Ultimately both parents are proved to be flawed in their attitudes to their country and in their attitudes to their son.

This is a flawed novel and in part Shriver plays on the sensational subject matter and the fears of middle class parents everywhere. On the other hand, who hasn't wondered what motivates crimes like these and it seems important that we as a society confront these issues head on. Shriver doesn't provide answers but she does begin to explore the issue in an interesting, thought-provoking way.


kimbofo said...

This is an excellent review. I read the book in 2005 but never got around to reviewing it, simply because I just didn't know where to start. I think it is a deeply profound book, one which throws up so many issues that need exploring by our society but are never actually discussed.

missv said...

Coincidentally I just finished reading We Need to Talk About Kevin on the weekend. I also found it unputdownable and it's a book that really made me think.

I didn't mind her writing style, I read Shriver's the Post Birthday World recently, so perhaps I was already used to it?

Dorothy W. said...

Hmmm ... I've thought about reading this one, but I can't make up my mind. I liked The Post-Birthday World, but the subject matter of the older book doesn't grab me quite as much.

jess said...

Thanks, Kimbofo. I really struggled with what to write about this book, but I agree that it is profound in a way that took me a while to appreciate.

Missv: Would love to read more about what you think of We Need to Talk About Kevin. I look forward to a review on your blog!

Dorothy: I'll have to read The Post- Birthday World now. I was a bit put off by the subject of We Need to Talk About Kevin, particularly since I work with adolescents, but it certainly grabbed me once I started reading.

LK said...

I couldn't pick this book up because of the sensationalism...But this is an excellent review, I agree with Kimbofo. I always like your book reviews!

jess said...

Thanks LK! That's very complimentary, especially since I enjoy your blog so much.

Smithereens said...

Last week I found that book at my local library (I'm quite late with bestsellers too) and after hesitating for a while I left it there... mmh, perhaps not the greatest book to read for a pregnant woman. But your review makes me think it over again. Perhaps next time?

Karen holden said...

Hello there....I'm the producer of BBC World Service's World Book Club programme and on May 12th we are interviewing Lionel Shriver about We Need to Talk about Kevin. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about the book. Would any of you be kind enough to send us a question that we could put to Lionel Shriver about the book? If so could you email me at: Thanks very much and look forward to hearing from you.

Karen Holden (Producer, BBC World Book Club)

psimmons said...

just read it, long after most others .. I didn't find the style a problem at all .. I just read Eva as a highly articulate and insightful character .. from the start I just felt so sorry for her and became increasingly angry with kevin and franklin ..

I pondered whether people can be born nasty and I guess I think that they can .. sure I think nasty people usually become nasty because they're abused or somehow unfortunate .. but some mothers do ave em .. I thought her big mistake was not leaving him with Franklin ..
But I would like to hear Franklin's side ..