Today’s review is one I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of weeks now. It was our last face-to-face book club read, and given that my next book club catch up is next week, I thought I’d better get last month’s book off the list.
The novel is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Even typing the title sends a bit of a shiver down my spine…
It took me a long time to get through this novel and I found it very unsettling. I had a lot of trouble putting it down, and many nights I couldn’t sleep for wondering what would happen next. On more than one occasion, I gave up trying to sleep and turned the light back on and read some more. It was an incredible novel and I’m very glad I persevered through it’s unpleasantness to the end.
“Two years ago Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker and a popular English teacher. Now, in a series of letters to her absent husband, Eva recounts the story of how Kevin came to be Kevin.
Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault? When did it all start to go wrong?
Or was it, in fact, ever ‘right’ at all?”
I think it’s fair to say, that this description sums up the crux of this story – who is at fault when such a horrific crime occurs? Was Kevin’s behaviour a result of bad parenting, or was he just ‘born bad’? Is it possible for a person to be ‘inherently evil’ or are we ultimately a product of our environment.
Interestingly, We Need to Talk About Kevin does not answer any of these questions. What it does do though, is provide a very thorough, albeit fictional, insight into the mind of a mother – a mind racked with questions, doubts, self-flagilation and heartbreak. In some ways it also provides a window into the mind of killer, a hypothetical study in depravity. In my opinion, it does this very carefully and convincingly.
There is nothing cheerful about this book, it offers little hope or resolution. It paints a bleak portrait of parenthood, of human nature, and of the overall culture of the USA. But…
I think it is an important book. It is well constructed (albeit a little wordy at times) and it asks some very pertinent questions about how we treat each other, how we assess ourselves, and perhaps most interestingly, the assumptions we make about the people around us.
“I know you doubt me on this, but I did try very hard to form a passionate attachment to my son. But I had never experienced my feeling for you, for example, as an exercise that I was obliged to rehearse like scales on the piano. The harder I tried, the more aware I became that my effort was an abomination. Surely all this tenderness that in the end I simply aped should have come knocking at the door uninvited. Hence it was not just Kevin who depressed me, or the fact that your own affections were increasingly diverted; I depressed me. I was guilty of emotional malfeasance.”
I’m sure this novel is classified in many different ways. It’s a book club favourite, it’s ‘arguably’ women’s fiction, it’s a psychological thriller. To me, it had a little of a horror novel about it, and it is most definitely frightening. In many ways I am very glad that I did not read this book before having children.
While I was reading the book, the film was in cinemas, and it has received acclaim. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing it in the future. I’ve heard it said that the casting is beyond perfect, and Kevin’s portrayal is chilling.
So to conclude, this is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth the effort. It is skilful, frightening and will leave you asking plenty of serious questions. It’s great to talk to others about, and will leave most readers haunted and reflective.
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Reviewed by: Mandi Johnston, from That Book You Like…