Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin is an absolutely superb novel, worthy of the highest acclaim and richly deserving of the impressive sales and many honours, including the 2005 Women’s Prize for Fiction, that have come its way. The skill of the writing and relevance of its themes make it a great example of contemporary literature, while the taboo subject matter and escalating tension of the plot give it the quality of the best pop-fiction thrillers.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

One year and eight months after her son murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher, Eva Katchadourian is finally ready to share her thoughts on the events that led up to the day she can only refer to as that Thursday. In a series of letters to her former husband she reveals her internal ambivalence towards motherhood, her struggle to care for the difficult child and her fear and suspicion of Kevin as an adolescent.

Her story is also an argument for her conviction that something was not right with Kevin from the beginning and, though she did not predict his mass murder even as she drove in panic to the school that Thursday, in hindsight his path to violence may have been as hard to avoid as it was to detect. It is the question that dominates the narrative and the thoughts of the reader; how much of Kevin is innate and how much of the blame, if any, is Eva’s. For though Eva’s words in her letters sound convinced of Kevin’s bad seed, her actions betray a guilty conscience.

Since Thursday, she has become adept at playing the martyr. She hasn’t moved far. It is difficult for her to venture into public yet she wants to feel the ramifications of her life. Her small duplex gets paint bombed, her groceries get vandalised but she still pays for them anyway. She struggles to get by after the costs of the civil trial. She could have claimed her legal expenses but chose to pay her legal fees herself by selling her house and her business instead. She confesses that even small annoyances make her feel more alive. Why so guilty Eva?

Yet her actions could also be interpreted as that of stubborn defiance. She went to trial against legal advice because she was determined to be exonerated. She bristles at the hypocrisy of blamers, finger-pointers and excuse-makers and their arrogant superiority of believing bad things shouldn’t happen to them. The treatment Eva endures in her new life supports both sides of her inner contradictions; the martyr pays penance and is grateful for anything that comes her way to make her feel alive while the other shows her defiance by not being affected and stubbornly continuing to live.

Before Kevin, Eva was not only the model of the modern independent woman, but also a bit of a trailblazer; intelligent, ambitious, self-actualising with unrestrained adventurousness and was entrepreneurial too. She started her own business writing travel guides for budget travellers to exotic locations, but success and money bored her and left her feeling unchallenged. She reached a point where even her first love, travel, no longer fulfilled her. It is within this existential crisis that she began to considering motherhood as a last undiscovered country.

What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child?

As a reviewer in the Australian put it: “[We Need to Talk About Kevin] addresses head-on the question that causes anguish to the greatest readers of fiction these days; middle-class women: when to, or even why, have a child?”

Slowly, Eva’s thoughts began filling with reasons to have a child – to have something of consequence to spend their disposable income on, a greediness for someone else to love after achieving the love of a partner, to avoid the nihilism of not having children and turning into middle-aged adolescents or at least to kill routine and alleviate boredom. Yet she knows the arguments against are eminently practical and grounded.

The very insurmountability of the task, its very unattractiveness, was in the end what attracted me to it.

But after a difficult childbirth, she feels nothing, deficient of maternal instinct, even disappointed and cheated. Soon, the real battle between mother and son, nurture and nature, begins. His refusal to suckle, his constant crying, which magically disappears in his father’s presence, leaves her feeling rejected, depressed and powerless. Right from the start Kevin drives a wedge between husband and wife and their vastly different experiences of parenthood. It is the beginning of years of Kevin’s divide and conquer strategy which he orchestrates so skilfully and malevolently that Franklin never believes his own wife’s version of events.

The troubles between mother and son evolve but persist as he grows. Kevin does not misbehave in the traditional sense. Instead he refuses to toilet train, refuses to show that he can walk and talk, refuses to learn or participate or engage. It is as if he deliberately wants to deny the parental joy in taking vicarious pleasure in your child’s accomplishments while also providing nothing that might be used against him. Nor can he be rewarded or punished in the traditional sense. He shows no interest in toys or books, instead he shows a dislike for everything. He seems to have no sense of shame or conscience or ambition.

[It] would become a chronic conundrum: how to punish a boy with almost Zen-like indifference to whatever you might deny him… You can only punish people who are already a little bit good.

As Kevin grows, the events associated with him escalate in their destructiveness and their ability to disturb. But so carefully has he played his hand that no one but Eva suspects anything malevolent in the boy. To her husband everything can be explained by coincidence, accident, a poor choice in friends and boys being boys. Eva has to leave herself reminders that Kevin’s nature is not just in her head while her husband is increasingly defensive and repeatedly shows that he trusts their son over her.

Naturally, we must also consider how reliable is Eva’s narration. We are, after all, only hearing her version of events. How much is Eva rationalising and reinterpreting in light of how things ended? How much of her motivation comes from trying to alleviate guilt or exonerate herself? This plays on the readers mind especially since very little from Kevin’s early childhood could be called unusual.

As well as telling us the story of her experiences as a mother, the history of Kevin and what her life has become since Thursday, Eva also relates to the reader the experiences of her fortnightly visits to the now almost eighteen year old Kevin in juvenile detention. Kevin seems to be relishing his role of sociopath beyond redemption, but there is also the sense that it is only a role, one that he may become tired of but will be stuck with the rest of his life. Eva also senses she is playing a role; that of the mother who stays loyal and loving no matter what, if only to convince herself.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is an absolutely superb novel, worthy of the highest acclaim and richly deserving of the impressive sales and many honours, including the 2005 Women’s Prize for fiction (the Orange Prize at the time), that have come its way. The film, starring Tilda Swinton as Eva and Ezra Miller as Kevin, is also worth experiencing.

There is also an undeniable poisonous quality to its subject matter. Though I know thousands of women must have read this book, I don’t know of any personally. The women in my life that I have suggested it to have said they would rather steer clear of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the style of this novel – written in the form of a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin. This gives the novel a very introspective and reflective nature which I loved. Every page is filled with provocative thoughts and sharp points made by the pensive, intelligent, Eva, who has clearly spent much time dwelling on these weighty matters of her marriage, her motherhood and her son. This is a cerebral read but not weighty; though the reader knows the story will lead to Kevin’s school massacre, the increasingly disturbing events and the escalating tension give the novel the qualities of a thriller. It is both engrossing and provokes quiet reflection in equal measure.

Author Lionel Shriver also employs a certain technique that I found particularly illuminating and well-delivered. She’ll allow Eva, in her letters, to digress and comment on something apart from the main story until she makes her point. The point will, of course, pertain to something she is trying to say in the story and thus illuminate it. There is nothing particularly innovative about this. What I liked about it, however, was that the transaction was two way – while the allusion illuminates the story, the story also gives credence to the allusion, which being larger in scope will therefore make the story a metaphor for something occurring in society at large without necessarily saying so explicitly.

The novel is not overtly political or sociological in commentary. Though, before Thursday, Eva voiced her opinions, had animated arguments with her husband, now she can hardly care about the Bush v Gore election taking place as she writes and can hardly bring up issues of the past. The contrasting opinions of Eva and Franklin cannot be called into evidence for the eventual tragedy. Even guns, gun violence and the rise of the high school massacre phenomenon that coincides with the period, is only given a light touch.

Thematically, the novel it has more to say. There is the manifest unfairness of the reproductive process and parental experience between the sexes. The father experiences the fantasy of parenthood, the mother the reality. Eva discusses the treatment of pregnancy in culture, from Rosemary’s Baby to Alien. But it would be too simplistic to call the novel feminist or strictly a comment on different experiences between the sexes, because it also raises intra-gender issues. This is manifest in the way Eva observes women competing with each other and judging each other over their pregnancy and childbirth experiences. The judgement Eva faces after Thursday is almost exclusively from other mothers.

The more dominant theme though is the contrast between realist and optimist perspectives. Franklin is clearly an optimist in the way he always sees the best in his son and is oblivious to the mounting evidence against this. His is the voice of blind faith, hope for the best and positive thinking of the sort Barbara Ehrenreich warns about. Eva is all too sure of the reality yet cannot predict its course, or perhaps does not want to because it leads to an outcome too horrific for any mother to consider for her child.

I only have one small criticism of this novel; I am left feeling unsure why Eva fell in love with Franklin to begin with. Their courtship is a little outside the scope of the story, it is only touched on a little, early in the novel. Franklin and Eva are very different people and Eva admits that he is vastly different to what she would have considered her ideal partner before meeting him. Their differences are mostly discussed in political and philosophical terms – Franklin is more traditionalist, conservative, patriotic; Eva is more progressive, liberal, worldly, sophisticated. Franklin came from a family that embodied the Protestant Work Ethic, taking pleasure in work and not in art, literature, film or food. Their differences create a lot of friction in their marriage as they have very different ideas of where they see themselves in the future, how to raise their children, how to manage their careers.

There are little hints as to why she fell in love with Franklin – that he helped her discover her own country, that he restored her idea of home, destroyed during a childhood with an absent father and an agoraphobic mother. I would have liked more.

There are a couple more things I want to say about this novel, but discussing them will incur some spoilers. So consider yourself warned if you read on.

I have been thinking a lot recently about how an author can use the plot to solve an issue of the format. Mister Pip recently brought this to my mind. Mister Pip is written from the point of view of a fourteen year old girl, Matilda, who does not have a lot of education. Yet in the novel she uses words and ideas that are clearly beyond what we would expect of the character. Author Lloyd Jones solves this in the end by making the educated, adult Matilda the real storyteller.

I thought of this a lot after reading Kevin because, while reading it, I felt compromises were being made between the form, of letters from Eva to Franklin, and the need to also tell the story to the reader. There will be passages where you will wonder why Eva is telling Franklin this, does Franklin no already know this. But like Mister Pip, this apparent discrepancy comes together in the end. It is just a little insight into the craft that you can’t help but reflect on after reading these books.

Finally, I thought the novel ended superbly. You can interpret the novel as Eva’s journey to answer the two questions that plague her – why did she have a child? Why did Kevin do it? When she puts the latter to her son, soon to turn eighteen and enter prison proper, he gives her the best possible answer to both.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

  1. Pingback: The Last Post! The End of One Blog and the Start of Another… | Rants & Raves

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Amsterdam | We Need to Talk About Books

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