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.