Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the most provocative books I’ve read in a long, long time (and when you’re reading books and writing about them for a living, you learn to be chary about sweeping statements like that one; the reviewer’s jargon is already full of stock phrases. But then cliché is sometimes the only recourse). This is a story told in the form of long confessional letters written by a woman, Eva Khatchadourian, to her (presumably estranged) husband Franklin, about their son Kevin who murdered nine people in his school gym a few days before his 16th birthday. Over the course of her letters Eva looks back at her peculiar, strained relationship with her son; but she begins her story with the time when she and Franklin, both in their late 30s, decided to have a child.
In a perfect world, the most important reason – perhaps the only reason - for a couple deciding to have children would be: both of them badly want to, and feel they are ready for it. In the real world, far too often too many other factors play the decisive role. This is especially true in more conservative societies where pressure from family elders is a continuous, intrusive presence – but it holds good everywhere. The reasons can be many. Perpetuating the species – or, less nobly, having children as a means of ensuring immortality for oneself. The knowledge that they’ll talk about us when we’ve passed on (whether they say good or bad things is another matter), the same way we talk about our parents. Simple curiosity about what it might be like to hear someone calling “Momm-MEEE?” from around the corner. The dark thought that if something were to happen to your partner, you’d at least have a tangible memento. Eva’s decision ultimately rests on a combination of these.
The first 60-70 pages give us some of the starkest, most daring writing on the nature of our closest relationships, the ones we take for granted. In her letters, Eva painstakingly dissects her feelings about parenthood. She wasn’t ready, she repeatedly claims:
“At last I should come clean. It is not true that I was ‘ambivalent’ about motherhood. You wanted to have a child. On balance, I did not. Added together, that seemed like ambivalence, but though we were a superlative couple we were not the same person. I never did get you to like eggplant.”Her descriptions of pregnancy, of the child-bearing and delivering processes, are shockingly subversive, and shockingly honest.
“Crossing the threshold of motherhood, suddenly you become social property, the animate equivalent of a public park. That coy expression ‘you’re eating for two now, dear’ is all by way of goading that your very dinner is no longer a private affair…”And later, comparing pregnancy to infestation, to “colonisation by stealth”, as depicted in horror films like Alien and Rosemary’s Baby:
“…the host is consumed or rent, reduced to husk or residue so that some nightmare creature may survive its shell…any woman whose teeth have rotted, whose bones have thinned, whose skin has stretched, knows the humbling price of a nine-month freeloader.”If the gestation period was a nightmare, the actual labour is worse. Finally, however, Kevin deigns to come into the world, and Eva, having heard gush-stories from friends about how parents fall instantly, irrevocably, in love with their newborns, discovers that she feels nothing for him.
“I felt…absent. I kept scrabbling around in myself for this new indescribable emotion…but no matter how I rattled around, no matter what I moved out of the way, it wasn’t there. ‘He’s beautiful,’ I mumbled; I had reached for a line from TV.”Here, Shriver’s book takes an interesting right turn. Kevin (at least in the account of him presented us by Eva) turns out to be the kind of child who would have both Damian (the kid in The Omen) and baby Hannibal Lecter bawling for their security blankets. Importantly, this is how he is right from the outset (which means it isn’t the result of his mother’s attitude towards him). He’s positively demoniac – frighteningly precocious and aware, yet uninterested in everything; completely bereft of attachments, yet with a fearsome propensity for malice. No babysitter can handle him for any length of time. Classmates and even teachers are frightened of him for reasons that can never be properly explained. He has the power of influencing people to do things that are bad for them. Eva can see this side of him; Franklin, who truly IS in love with his child, can not.
As the years pass, Eva repeatedly questions whether she’s been a good mother but wonders if she even had an option, given her son’s nature: “After having not a child but this particular one, I couldn’t see how anyone could claim to love children in the generic any more that anyone could credibly claim to love people in a sufficiently sweeping sense as to embrace Pol Pot, Don Rickles and an upstairs neighbour who does 2,000 jumping jacks at three in the morning.”
In a desperate attempt to “understand something about my soul”, Eva has another child, against Franklin’s wishes, and this one turns out to be an angelic girl who does indeed stir the mother inside her. Her soul is safe for the time being. But now Kevin has a potential victim right under his nose.
Here, portions of the book start to read like the scripts of those horror movies about malevolent children (albeit much better written). And yet, throughout the reading process, we must be aware that we can’t blindly trust Eva’s narrative. Though there’s nothing equivocal about Kevin’s final act of destruction, there is room for ambiguities in the details that accumulate over the years. Another option presents itself: could it be that Kevin, though undoubtedly a strange, emotionless child, was never as malicious in the early stages as his mother makes him out to be? Could the real evil have resulted from his upbringing, and is this what Eva is trying to conceal (even as she repeatedly apologises for the things she does feel responsible for)?
And by the time we reach the book’s end, there’s yet another option: could Kevin have become what he is because he carries his mother’s genes? Throughout the story we’ve been presented the picture of Kevin as his father’s son, while Eva clings to her darling daughter (when Franklin and Eva decide to separate, they joke darkly about there at least being no argument over custody). But is there a bond between Eva and her son that transcends these surface appearances? The final, chilling paragraphs certainly seem to suggest so.
We Need to Talk about Kevin raises so many issues – about the nature-nurture debate, about family units made up of very different individuals who have to find a way to coexist, about upper-class hypocrisies - that it’s impossible to mention all of them here. Ultimately I have to turn to another cliché, this time from the blurb-writer’s pantheon: consider yourselves grabbed by the shoulders and told “Read this!”
(Also see Nilanjana S Roy’s review, here.)