by: Lionel Shriver
This is probably the darkest book I’ve read all year – even Anna Karenina had some light and hopeful moments to it. We Need to Talk About Kevin chronicles the story of Eva Khatchadourian, mother of Kevin Khatchadourian, mass murderer in a school massacre.
The book takes the forms of letters Eva writes to her estranged husband, Frank, telling their story from their initial discussions about having to the current day, more or less chronologically. Current day is a little over a year after the massacre; Kevin is imprisoned for his crimes.
The story mainly revolves around Kevin. Even in her own story, Eva’s letters are a desperate attempt to answer the question: Is she responsible for her son’s actions? It’s a really interesting read on the nature vs. nurture “debate” (most people agree it’s a combination of both; it’s just assigning importance that we’re still trying to figure out) and the influence a mother has on a child’s development, as well as the reciprocal influence the child has on the mother’s development.
From the beginning, Eva never wanted a child. She got pregnant with Kevin to please her husband, mistaking a disinterest in raising a child for apathy. Shriver excellently dissects the indirect pressure on women to have children – the assurances that “you’ll feel differently when it’s your child,” the assumption that because one is female, one wants to have a child, the prescriptive way in which women are supposed to feel about children in general.
The lack of options presented to women plays into this -it is not part of our social framework that women apathetic or on the fence about having kids should err on the side of not having children, rather than assuming they’ll love the baby when it arrives; that a child is a major life change that is not going to magically work out once the baby arrives. Certainly Eva and her husband never really discuss how they feel about parenting beforehand or how they feel about children – not how they feel about becoming parents, but how they feel about their future child.
Eva’s lack of a desire for a child, coupled with a lack of bonding with her son and an exceptionally difficult baby set up a failing relationship between her and her son. As Kevin grows older and begins to commit rather horrifying acts (and his mother retaliates, once, much to his delight), Eva finds herself with nowhere to go. Kevin brilliantly manipulates his father into seeing only good in him. In fact, Frank, for all that he is an affectionate and attentive parent to Kevin, doesn’t know Kevin at all. He ignores the warning signs – the exclusion from playgroups, their inability to keep a babysitter or a nanny, the harrowing tales Eva hesitatingly brings up – and allows Kevin to pull the wool over his eyes as many times as necessary.
Eva, on the other hand, doesn’t bring up Kevin very often. For all that she sees her son for the (somewhat classical) sociopath he is turning into, she ignores his behavior as much as possible, or allows it to remain solely between her and her son.
In a sense, everyone except Kevin is trapped by societal conventions. Eva has no on to turn to about her lack of feelings for her baby and later her concerns about his behavior. Frank is so invested in the idea of a perfect family that he hangs on to his idealization of Kevin as the perfect son until, too late, he can no longer avoid the truth. There are options out there, but it seems like Eva and Frank have never truly encountered them.
Kevin himself is rather an enigma. One can’t tell if he was born evil or made evil. Or born with evil tendencies and never prevented from fulfilling them. Everything he does is done with his mother in mind; why this is so is unclear. What is clear is that Eva knows and understands him better than anyone else in his life.
Overall this is a rather excellent yet supremely disturbing book. I rather related to Eva, in her disinterest towards children and motherhood – I have no desire to reproduce whatsoever. I can’t imagine having – and never will have – a baby feeling as I feel. I don’t blame Eva for Kevin’s actions – I think it’s due to a complex web of influences, events, nature, and social pressures – but I do think there was more she could have done.
If you want a dark, twisted novel taking an unusual stance on a horrifying event, or if you love thought-provoking novels in general, give this one a go. If you’re not okay with violence, or if you dislike novels revolving around characters that are hard to sympathize with – and these characters are often hard, if not downright impossible, to sympathize with – you may want to give this one a pass.
As always, spoilers are welcome in the comments!