Thursday, 25 September 2014

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Book cover of We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
You'd never believe how long I've put off writing this review; it's just going to be impossible. Not only did this book make me feel such a complex range of emotions, but every single person I've talked to seems to have taken something different from We Need To Talk About Kevin. Ah well, here goes nothing.

Plot summary: Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

In Lionel Shriver's afterword she says, 'Though any writer is pleased by admiring reviews, I've been more fascinated by the responses to Kevin from so-called 'ordinary' readers. Not only are many of these amateur reviews well written and reflective, but they divide almost straight down the middle into what seems to be reviews of two different books.'

That's exactly it (as much as I bristle at being called ordinary). I've spent quite a while talking to Ellie about this and I swear that she's read a completely different book because her viewpoint is almost the exact opposite of mine. The basic point of We Need To Talk About Kevin is what drove him to murder seven classmates and two adults in a highschool gym - did his unaffectionate mother drive him to it or was he just born 'evil?'

There doesn't seem to be any middle ground here at all - you either completely believe that Eva shouldn't have had children in the first place or you feel desperately sorry for her and the way Kevin turned out. That's a testament to Lionel Shriver's great writing - there are two books intertwined within and your own experiences and your own morals (I think my nine months of working with serial rapists affected my judgement) determine which version plays out in your head.

You know what happened right from the beginning; it's even in the blurb. Kevin shot people and is now in prison. It's hardly a secret. But that's all you know until Eva unravels it for you, little by little. It's as if she's telling a story to her estranged husband but with the benefit of hindsight, and it's that hindsight that makes this story fascinating.


I have reflected on the fact that for most of us, there is a hard, impassable barrier between the most imaginatively detailed depravity and its real-life execution. It's the same solid steel wall that inserts itself between a knife and my wrist even when I'm at my most disconsolate. So how was Kevin able to raise that crossbow, point it at Laura's chestbone, and then really, actually, in time and space, squeeze the release? I can only assume he discovered what I never wish to. That there is no barrier.
This book is perfect. Well, no, actually it's horrible. But it's perfectly written. It's not just what Kevin eventually ends up doing, it's the little details that really 'get' you and keep you looking over your shoulder for days to come. His mannerisms are so spot-on and vaguely terrifying that it's a masterpiece of characterisation.

Eva is also a perfectly written character, but one I had an awful lot more sympathy for. Not killing nine people helps with that, I've found. I wouldn't say I liked her, but I had a lot of respect for her honesty and her willingness to admit her own flaws. Plus, nobody deserves to go through what she has, regardless of... well, anything.

Franklin, Kevin's father, is a little bit flatter as a character but then he doesn't feature half as much as Kevin and Eva do. If I'm honest, I'd have to admit that I hated him more than the other two combined, just for being so damned naive and the infuriating way he undermined Eva at every opportunity. Maybe I should pin any 'blame' on him for lack of appropriate discipline.

I might be more kindly disposed to this ultra-secular notion that whenever bad things happen someone must be held accountable if a curious little halo of blamelessness did not seem to surround those very people who perceive themselves as bordered on every side by wickedness. That is, it seems to be the same folks who are inclined to sue builders who did not perfectly protect them from the depredations of an earthquake who will be the first to claim that their son failed his math test because of attention defecit disorder, and not because he spent the night before at a video arcade instead of studying complex fractions.
It's not just the characters though. What well and truly makes this book is the altering relationship between Kevin and Eva. I've never seen anything like it and I can't even begin to decide which adjectives describe it effectively. It's so subtle but it's definitely there. I think you might have to read it to understand, but you should be reading this anyway.

It was a struggle to read the last few pages. Not because I didn't passionately love the book, but because it's hard. If you have a soul, a heart or any form of compassion, it's so damned hard to turn those pages. I predicted parts of the twist but it didn't stop it from hurting so much. I wanted to cry, throw up and hug Eva all at the same time.

The only only only thing wrong with this book is that occasionally the sentences are a little... odd. Sometimes I had to reread a sentence a few times and mentally add a few commas before I could understand the meaning properly. It's not a constant fault and the prose is of a generally high standard, but that's why I noticed it all the more when it did happen.

We Need To Talk About Kevin isn't an easy read and it's not particularly an enjoyable one either. What it is, is truly amazing. It takes real skill to create a novel so unique that every reader interprets differently. Please read this. It's one of the best books I've ever come across.


This book was:

Have you read We Need To Talk About Kevin? What's your view - whose 'fault' was it?
 

2 comments:

  1. I've been umming and ahhing about this book for ages and I think your review just tipped me over into actually reading it. I initially heard fairly middling reviews about the writing, so even though the actual story intrigued me I was hesitant to actually give it a go and just watched the movie instead. I quite liked the film and it raised a lot of the points you made in your review about who was to blame so I'm guessing its a fairly accurate adaptation (except in the film I think he used a crossbow) but I think I might still give the book a shot.

    God, that was a fairly useless comment wasn't it!

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    Replies
    1. Read it Kayleigh! I may have had pretty much a polar opposite viewpoint to Hanna about who was to blame - I detested Eva and thought she was a manipulative narrator - but I 100% agree that it's masterful, exquisitely written, and just... all-round incredible. It really does pull your entire world view down into it as you're reading, every moral and philosophy and experience combining to help you form an opinion about what's happening on the page. I couldn't stop debating things in my head, shifting things around, thinking about it every moment I wasn't reading and for a long while afterwards as well. It was my runaway top read of last year and I'd go as far as to say it's one of the best I've read in the last decade or more.

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