We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Paperback, 400 pages
Published by Harper Perennial, 2003
I picked up this book to read on the plane to and from Scandinavia. Although I loved The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, I was a little wary of this novel’s subject matter, namely the fallout and self-doubt a mother experiences after her son commits a heinous school shooting. But the book won The Orange Prize, and as I’ve said before, The Post Birthday World was absolutely fabulous (read it, for real), so I took the chance. And I was privileged to read a deeply moving, traumatic book about love and loss and motherhood.
Formatted in a series of letters to her husband, Franklin, Eva Khatchadourian documents the story of her’s and Franklin’s love, their family, and her inability to connect with her son, Kevin. Initially I wondered why we are only privileged to Eva’s thoughts. Were we the audience to assume the role of Franklin? Was Franklin receiving the correspondence, but choosing to ignore these soul-baring olive branches? I decided Eva was writing to Franklin as I used to write to my friend Emily, just a name I wrote in a diary as I tried to connect with a part of my life that I had forever lost.
Eva uses these letters to justify her motherhood to Franklin. He can’t, as he did during their life together, claim that Eva is a cold-hearted, distant mother. He can’t chose to believe Kevin’s telling of events over his wife’s. He can’t dismiss Eva’s doubts about her son, about her role as a mother. He can’t dismiss her feelings. Eva finally is given the voice she was never able to have in their relationship after the birth of Kevin, and she pours her every self-doubt and frustration and sadness into the pages she writes to Franklin. She also uses these letters to probe deep within her heart and psyche to ask why. Why did Kevin commit these crimes? And the most heart-breaking question for her to bear: was she to blame?
Though there were moments of levity and genuine tenderness, as you may well imagine, this is a heavy book to read. We are privy to one woman’s sincere loss of everything that ever meant something to her; we experience her deep pain and profound self-doubt. This book was not an easy read by any means, but for anyone who has ever searched their soul for the meaning of their life, their reason for being on earth, there is an eloquence and honesty to Eva’s emotional release that everyone can relate to. Eva is also incredibly brave. She gives voice to thoughts many women have, but that are unforgivingly taboo — at one point she lists all of the reasons she doesn’t want to be a mother.
Through Eva’s telling of events, a common question we ask ourselves becomes Is Kevin really a horrible child, or is Eva a horrible mother? And the answer isn’t a simple black and white. Neither party is to blame, but neither party is innocent. I vacillated back and forth between thinking Kevin was truly an evil child to thinking he was misunderstood and acting out to earn his mother’s affection. And while I did think Eva was stand-offish and unsure of her role as mother, I could tell she harbored affection and love for her first child. And while Kevin seems like a horrid child, his actions as portrayed in the book are essentially his actions pushed through Eva’s filter. His actions aren’t necessarily true to reality, but they are true to Eva’s reality. And that is what the book is about, Eva is examining her reality.
Perhaps the best insight I had into her’s and Kevin’s relationship occurred 50 pages from the end of the novel. Eva and Franklin argue and determine they should get a divorce once the school year is over. Kevin would go with Franklin, and Eva would take Kevin’s sister, Celia. Eavesdropping, Kevin interrupts this part of the conversation and Eva realizes that Kevin doesn’t want to get stuck with his father, he’d rather go with his mother. It was the first time I realized that Kevin was really striving for his mother’s approval, an insight that was further supported in the coming chapters. Kevin gives a rare interview to a television documentary. The filmmaker asks Kevin about each of his relations in turn. Each is given a harsh critique, but when the filmmaker asks Kevin equally probing questions about his mother, Kevin, to everyone’s surprise, sticks up for his mother and everything she did and went through during and after his trial. And as the tv documentary pans out, Eva sees that the only decoration in Kevin’s room is a picture of his mother.
No surprisingly, there is also a clear Oedipal streak running through the novel. As Kevin ages his cries for attention, especially where his mother are concerned, become more and more sexual in nature. Even the method Kevin chooses for his executions is innately phallic; arrows, wooden shafts impaling soft flesh. Eva’s inability to cope with or react to her son’s odd, disturbing behaviour causes Eva to pull further and further away from her relationships with her son and husband. As she observes:
…I did feel under siege. My daughter had been half blinded, my husband doubted my sanity, and my son was flouting his butter-greased penis in my face. –page 300
If I hadn’t already decided I loved this book, one surprise element would have convinced me. I pride myself on the accuracy of my story-predictions; after all, I’m always right. However, I was genuinely impressed and surprised by Shriver’s story-telling at the end of the novel. Her ability to weave a story, even one as psychologically dense as this one, is unparalleled. She has the unique gift of completeness, each character feels like a whole being whose motives, flaws, and thoughts are natural to their imperfect humanity. This book was a fantastic read because it was poignant and true. It is highly recommended.