Book Review – We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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I’m willing to bet that most people who were teenagers in 1999 remember where they were when they find out about the Columbine shooting. It was a sort of JFK assassination for our generation, a year and a half before the World Trade Centre towers fell. It wasn’t the first school shooting and it wasn’t the last but it changed things in schools.

I remember, just weeks later, sitting in the school gym, on lockdown for hours after a bomb threat was called in. My gym teacher told us there was a skunk loose in the school but we could hear the police and the dogs in the hallways. We had seen the footage. We knew the possibilities.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Harper Perennial, 2006) details the story of Eva Khatchadourian. Eva’s son is Kevin. Two years previously, Kevin went into his school and killed seven people. The story unfolds in letters from Eva to her estranged husband – and Kevin’s father – Franklin. In these letters Eva confesses the things she could never tell Franklin face-to-face. Her extreme reluctance to become a mother. Her early dislike and distance from Kevin. How Kevin really broke his arm as a kid.

It’s a chilling tale of a woman who became a later-in-life mother to please the man she loved and, seemingly, gave birth to a monster. According to Eva, from Kevin’s earliest days, he was manipulative and difficult, crying all day when alone with his mother but stopping immediately when Franklin returned home. Kevin continues this dual personality, offering up a Gee whiz, Dad, let’s throw the ball around personality to his father while Eva sees a darker side. A boy who delights in the pain of others, who refuses to show enjoyment of anything. A boy who may have deliberately blinded a little girl. These opposing views of their son drive a deeper and deeper wedge between Eva and Franklin.

There’s something of a horror story here. Nice, middle-aged, happily married couple decide to have a baby and give birth to a monster. The horror lies in the idea, This could happen to you. The idea that Eva is another of Kevin’s victims. The idea that a parent might do everything right and still, one day, their child will commit mass murder.

Is that true? Did Eva do everything right? Honestly, I don’t know. Of course, no one who has children or hopes to have children wants to believe it could be. And, within the novel, it’s not hard to find Eva’s failings as a mother. They are myriad. Then again, survive to the age of thirty or so and you’ll find your failings are myriad too.

Shriver definitely does a terrific job of drawing out the suspense. From the beginning of the book, from the beginning of Kevin’s life, we know that he is going to commit this atrocity. We know that it will take place on a Thursday. We know that something has happened to drive a wedge between Eva and Franklin so that she has to resort to writing him letters. Knowing all this does colour the story – it’s difficult to see any side of Kevin that isn’t a sociopath, and I’m not sure Shriver gives him one. But for a book where not much happens in the present tense, I sure wanted to keep reading.

The ending is horrifying and sad – both in the ways you expect and some you don’t. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect is how little Shriver had to stray from the real world. I appreciate the way she casts a light on these parents, who are also often victims but rarely included as such. The day after I finished reading this book Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in California. Sadly, that says less about coincidental timing and more about how terribly common these incidents seem to be becoming.

It’s hard to cheer for this book, or for Eva, but it’s a solidly written work that is all too relevant to our world now.

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