19th Apr 2010
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Kevin Khatchadourian was always a difficult child. He would never finish his dinner. He tormented his little sister endlessly. And he killed seven of his classmates, his teacher and a cafeteria worker days before his sixteenth birthday. After being successfully sued by the families of those murdered, Kevin’s mother Eva was forced to sell her million-dollar home and liquidate the publishing company that she’d founded herself. In a series of letters to her now absent husband, Eva recalls their life leading up to Kevin’s murderous rampage and the devastating effects of his actions. Despite being published in 2003, Lionel Shriver’s seventh novel is still widely-discussed, and for good reason.
Whilst reading We Need To Talk About Kevin two things will become evident:
1. Kevin really was a little shit.
2. Eva wholly and unapologetically disliked her son from birth.
And this will result in the following question: Was Kevin born evil or was his character moulded by Eva’s lack of maternal affection? It’s this question – with its roots in the age-old Nature vs Nurture debate – that makes the novel such a favourite at literary discussions. The book doesn’t decide who is at fault. No matter what camp you fall in Shriver’s thoughts on the matter are clear: “If I spent 400 pages refusing to answer that question, why would I answer it now?” Well, quite.
Though the overwhelming amount of debate is centred around parental culpability, Shriver’s portrayal of motherhood isn’t exactly rosy. I’ve never read a book portraying motherhood as this bloody tough. Shriver wrote in the Guardian that “We seem to be ready for novels in which parenthood is sometimes frustrating, painful and even boring.” That may be true, but it still seems shocking that for Eva (once CEO of her own company) being a parent is dull at best and tortuous at worst. It shouldn’t seem shocking but it is. Eva never wanted to be a mother and she spends a great deal of time lamenting the things she sacrificed (social life, hot body, freedom to jump on a plane on a whim, etc) in becoming a parent. Unsurprisingly this makes Eva, with her selfishness and startling honesty, a pretty difficult character to like.
And that’s another thing about Eva – you’re never quite sure if she’s exaggerating Kevin’s actions or not. Eva’s relationship with her son is a constant battle, starting from his refusal to breastfeed. Accusing a newborn baby of purposefully tormenting you probably isn’t normal behaviour. And it’s the unreliability of Eva’s account that further fuels discussion.
But opening up explosive debates doesn’t win you the Orange Prize for Fiction. What cements We Need To Talk About Kevin’s position as a modern classic is the writing. Shriver’s eloquent prose stops the novel from sounding like an (albeit fictional) misery memoir, and the heart-breaking twist towards the end of the book made my stomach flip. I’ve never had such a physical response to a work of fiction.
This book is made for discussion. So read it, get your friends to read it and be prepared to talk about Kevin. We Need To Talk About Kevin is published by Serpent’s Tail and is £9.99 from Amazon.