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Saturday, 26 November 2011

Book Review: Lionel Shriver's "We Need To Talk About Kevin"

As some of you may have noticed, I recently reviewed the film adaptation of this book. It made such an impression that I was quick to seek out the novel it's based on.

The book is structured as a series of letters to protagonist Eva's husband, Franklin, in which she talks to him about the many incidents that may have pointed to their son Kevin's killing spree, issues she never raised before his crime. Going back as far as the reluctant decision to have a child, this is an articulate, in-depth exploration of one woman's struggle to love her son.

When I began reading this book, I was struck by the way Shriver dealt with the ethics of having a child. This is something I think is all too easily brushed over in today's society, but whatever faults Eva may have, she certainly comes to understand that parenthood should be something thoroughly considered. At the time of Kevin's conception, Eva was all too aware that she wasn't certain about motherhood and entered into the agreement to have a child in part due the pressure she felt to please Franklin.

So we begin with a reluctant mother who struggles to bond with her firstborn. Interestingly in the afterword of the edition I was reading, Shriver talks about the way her readers largely fell into two camps. 1. Those who thought Eva was a bad Mother, cruel and distant. 2. Those who believed Kevin was innately bad.

Indeed, there are instances where Eva's behaviour would seem inconceivable to parents, but it must be remembered that Kevin demonstrates a special talent for being vindictive. It seems to come down to a case of 'which came first?'; Kevin's hateful personality or Eva's cruelty. I believe the story is more complex than that.

What so fascinated me was the undeniable bond that Kevin and Eva do share: their characteristics. Kevin's mother is a travel writer who has jetted around the world, perhaps the last person you would expect to be dissatisfied, but she admits she is. In recounting one of her first trips abroad, she confesses to being disappointed that Spain had trees just like America. Indeed, her subsequent adventures come to be mundane and she confesses that part of her desire to have a child sprung from the idea that it would be a new adventure into the unknown.

This desperation for something more is precisely what drives Kevin to his killings. He is saddened by the fact that there is nothing more. He comes from a wealthy family, given virtually anything he wants and yet the emptiness persists. He feels trapped in this world in much the same way as Eva feels trapped in surburbia. The two characters are similar in more ways than one.

For me, this is why the story is as powerful as it is; you can recognise the parent in the child.

Eva remains the only one who understands Kevin.

About the Author


At age seven, Lionel Shriver decided she would be a writer. In 1987, she made good on her promise with The Female of the Species, a debut novel that received admiring reviews. Shriver's five subsequent novels were also well-received; but it was her seventh, 2003's We Need to Talk About Kevin, that turned her into a household name.
 
Beautiful and deeply disturbing, ...Kevin unfolds as a series of letters written by a distraught mother to her absent husband about their son, a malevolent bad seed who has embarked on a Columbine-style killing spree. Interestingly enough, when Shriver presented the book proposal to her agent, it was rejected out of hand. She shopped the novel around on her own, and eight months later it was picked up by a smaller publishing company. The novel went on to win the 2005 Orange Prize, a UK-based award for female authors of any nationality writing in English.


A graduate of Columbia University, Shriver is also a respected journalist whose features, op-eds, and reviews have appeared in such publications as The Guardian, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the Economist. Since her breakthrough book, she has continued to produce bestselling fiction and gimlet-eyed journalism in equal measure.

2 comments:

  1. One of the most brutally honest books I have ever read. Taking such a different slant on such a tragedy was thought provoking. An unforgettable look at our culture and getting right to the core.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Brasil- I know exactly what you mean. I've just bought another book by Lionel Shriver, 'So Much For That', which I'm very much looking forward to.

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