Sunday, October 4

We Have to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

Franklin and Eva Khatchadourian were in almost every way polar opposites - a location finder, he was staunchly American, Republican, and saw no need to leave home and see the rest of the world. Eva, on the other hand, was a Democrat who loved to travel and created one of the first budget travel guides for young Americans going overseas. Despite this they were deeply compatible and deeply in love. Until the decision - almost wholly Franklin's - to have a child.
Three days before his sixteenth birthday, their son Kevin went to his school armed and shot adults and children. In a series of deeply honest and revealing letters to her absent husband, whom she still deeply loves, Eva explores how this happened, alternating a fairly chronological sequence with more contemporary events, including visiting Kevin in jail. In the process she discusses and analyses their marriage and discloses details about her relationship with and attitude toward Kevin that Franklin had not previously been told about. As the letters go one way, Eva projects Franklin's responses to some of her reports and replies to them, so at times there's almost a dialogue through which we learn more about the polarising effect of Kevin's presence on his parents.
This is one of the most difficult reviews I've written in a long time, primarily because the unfolding details are an integral part of the narrative style so I've tried to balance plot description with keeping surprises intact. We Need to Talk About Kevin is perhaps the most gripping and fascinating book I've read this year. Eva's voice is opinionated and merciless, filled with tart asides and commentary, and she would certainly be difficult to live with. Far from a 'born mother' she dislikes virtually every aspect of motherhood, a confession that is both markedly contrary to community expectation and familiar to many women.
The unrelieved first person account is a magnificent example of the unreliable narrator - hers is the only perspective we have of Kevin; though she includes Franklin's increasingly starry-eyed view of his beloved son, Eva makes it clear that she thinks he's unable to face what she sees as the truth. I was compelled by her interpretations of Kevin's behaviour, from infancy to adolescence, which never allow for anything but malice. At the same time I increasingly asked whether he was really born bad or if it was Eva's unrelenting hostility that created this annihilating child, and this tension forms an integral part of the reading experience.
After writing my review I checked what other readers had written, and was struck by how many Amazon reviewers disliked the book because Eva was unsympathetic. She's certainly not warm and fuzzy, but for me that was an intrinsic part of the novel's attraction. In some ways her unsentimental pragmatism and clear outlook reminded me of Lynn, which may have made me more sympathetic toward her. Well, that and my own perception that gestating fetuses are parasitic, babies are the more egotistic creation on earth, small children sometimes go out of their way to be annoying, being a mother is ludicrously difficult, and instant mother-child bonds are vanishingly rare.
Provided you can be comfortable with a protagonist who shares these, and even harsher, opinions about her own offspring then you, too, may find We Need to Talk About Kevin a fascinating, resonant and compelling read that deserves its prominent position on best seller lists and book group schedules. If, however, you prefer your mother figures doting and cosy, you may prefer to pass. - Alex

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