Monday, October 03, 2005

We Need to Talk about Kevin

Have put up a post on The Middle Stage about Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. It's a book I can’t recommend strongly enough.

Update: have cross-posted the full review. Here it is:

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!”


  1. Oh NO! I just read that a couple of weeks ago and I thought it was overblown, overdone, unrealistic, and, towards the end, made for more tedious than complulsive reading. (i mean, i just plodded along till the end because i had got that far anyway) and geez, what's with the 'chemistry' between mother and son?!

  2. *sulk sulk* What did you think of the review though (irrespective of not agreeing with it)? I actually thought there was so much more to say, but didn’t want to end up writing a 5000-word thesis.

  3. well, the review was nice! i especially liked the "baby hannibal lecter bawling for his security blanket"! :)
    i also really liked this part of nilanjana roy's review, where she so aptly observes eva's incapacity to sugar-coat reality for herself.
    the reviews were cooler than the book! now you go write about kevin!!

  4. Very well written review. And the book should be great too.

    I too liked the Hannibal Lecter reference. And comparing pregnancy to a morbid infestation is absolutely brilliant (it's from the book, right?).

    I need to see rosemary's baby again, now that I have got this great psychological insight :)

    And, why are comments not enabled on Middle Stage??

  5. Shruti: thanks, but if I could write one-tenth as well as her I would have kissed my job good-bye a long time ago and done the full-time-reclusive-writer thingie.

    Alok: Yes, the infestation reference is from the book and more than the actual insight (which has been provided by paranoia films and books before), I thought the way Shriver presented it was shiver-inducing - the perspective being that of a pregnant woman whose attitude towards the embroyo growing inside her so completely overturns all the conventional notions of motherhood that have been handed down to us.

  6. i haven't read the book .. but excellent review..

  7. After this review I am itching to get my hands on the book - i hope i enjoy it as much as you did. great review!

  8. Thanks to you and your strong recommendation, I bought this book and read it. I completely agree with you, the book was provocative and disturbing. Long after I finished that book, I am still thinking about it. I am tempted to give it a second read.

    I will look out for more recommendations from you.

  9. ***And comparing pregnancy to a morbid infestation is absolutely brilliant (it's from the book, right?).***
    What's so shocking/surprising/new here? That's how I always looked at pregnancy myself. I also think it is one of the horrors that Alien exploits.
    Some creature living in your body, living off you, sucking your juices, ruining your health...possibly leaving you a ruin or dead. That's pretty straightforward and hardly original.

  10. Hi!

    I've been looking for this book for the longest time! Can I get it in Delhi? I'm also looking for books by Ishiguro... Ne help would be very helpful!! Thanx!

  11. This book was a horror thriller posing as literature. It was all a little too easy, and yes, when I was in my teens I realized that the movie Alien was a metaphor for childbearing, and in fact, many horror movies are. Toddlers and children, like psycho killers are egocentric and eerily insistent on getting what they want. Still, the woman could have gotten therapy and I found the writing good, but then tedium set in.

  12. I finished reading this book at 3 this morning. I can't disagree with the naysayers enough. Your review was great - enticing but not too revealing. You are right - there could be books written on this book.
    As a mother I thought Eva's character was extremely well drawn and her attitude to her son when he is born is one of the truest depictions of PND I have ever read. Thanks for the review.

  13. It's been over three years since you wrote this, but nice review! I agree with a lot of what you said. Although the book was repetitive and the sheer number of tiny incidents that point towards Kevin's evil nature gets a little tedious (After a point, you know what's coming, like the shower scenes in horror movies), it makes sense for a mother who's trying to comb every inch of her past with her son, examining it carefully for evidence that she isn't culpable.

    I didn't enjoy the movie nearly as much though. Tilda Swinton is a great actor, but the movie's too overtly dark and the kid playing Kevin is always skulking about and glowering ominously. What comes off in the book as a crushing impossibility to relate with the world, Kevin's condemnation to detachment, comes off as anger in the movie.

    The book scares me, though. I started writing a story a couple of years ago for a creative writing class about a woman who didn't "get" her kid, but I abandoned it because I wasn't sure where it was going and my friends thought it sounded implausible. I'm terrified that might mean something.