Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Even though We Need To Talk About Kevin is fictional, its stark portrayal of a woman reeling after her son’s violent killing spree at his high-school has become a kind of cultural shorthand since its initial publication in 2003. I’d say that reading it is “timely”, but sadly, with the state of gun laws in the U.S., it’s never not.

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In We Need To Talk About Kevin, a regretful mother resents her own child, and fears him despite his father’s insistence that he’s a “normal” boy. After he kills several of his classmates and staff at his school, she writes to her absent husband about what happened and where it all went wrong with Kevin.

None of this constitutes a “spoiler”, by the way – it’s all in the blurb.

The first letter is dated 8 November 2000, one year and eight months after the massacre (that the narrator, Eva, calls Thursday, lacking any better nomenclature). She tells the story of Kevin’s upbringing in roughly chronological order, with occasional shifts in timeline to better emphasise a given point. She was reluctant to step back from her flourishing career to birth and raise Kevin, and suspected from the start that something was “off” about her son. Her husband, Franklin, denied anything amiss, however, and insisted that the problems were all Eva’s, stemming from her own ambivalence about motherhood.

Shriver up-ends the ever-popular “Oh, I just couldn’t believe it, he’s the last one you’d expect would do something like this!” narrative. Kevin is never a sympathetic character, not even as an infant. Neither is his mother, come to that. It’s no surprise at all to the reader that he would do something terrible. Though Eva didn’t foresee his homicidal attack on his school, she can see in retrospect that it was entirely predictable. The “signs” were all there. But could she have done anything to prevent it?

And there we have the question at the heart of We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Eva’s letters to Franklin. Were Kevin’s actions inevitable? Was he “born this way”? How much of his murderous rage was innate, and how much was fostered by Eva’s parenting? It’s nature versus nurture, with the highest stakes.

It makes We Need To Talk About Kevin a truly chilling read. Not horror-movie jump-scare scary, but can’t-look-away feel-it-in-your-bones unnerving. I found myself totally gripped by it, even though the ending was a foregone conclusion. I “just-one-more-chapter”ed myself past bed-time more than once.

That speaks to Shriver’s unquestionable talent and mastery of the form. To have a story play out exactly as you’d expect, and yet still keep you on the edge of your seat? Incredible. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a very weighty and cerebral book, and yet it’s still highly readable, compelling to the very last.

The only parts that really jarred for me were some casual slurs and ugly points of view that I couldn’t be 100% sure were attributable only to Eva’s character. I really got the impression that Shriver’s own fatphobia and ableism seeped into the narrative without her realising, rather than her inserting it as a character trait to be read critically. This suspicion was backed up when, in the additional material in my edition of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver referred to one of her earlier less-popular novels as her “r***rd child”. Yuck. Shriver has expressed some problematic views in the past, so just be wary and read with a weather eye.

But back to the book: there are no neat answers in this story, not even when the denouement is over and Eva finally demands an explanation from Kevin. The ambiguity of the novel, coupled with the high-stakes subject matter, makes We Need To Talk About Kevin perfect for book club debates – with trigger warnings, naturally.

Oh, speaking of which: heads up for a truly sickening description of a horribly cruel and violent dog death, not quite halfway through. I had to put the book down and play with happy, healthy Fyodor Dogstoyevsky for a while to clear it from my mind.

I can only hope it’s been excluded from the film adaptation, which I’m eager to watch. Having read We Need To Talk About Kevin, I can see that Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller were perfectly cast in their roles as Eva and Kevin respectively. It’s a story that doesn’t lose anything from already knowing how it ends, and can only be enriched by compelling performances on screen, I suspect.

And – I’ve left this point until the very last paragraph, because I suppose it could be a kind of “spoiler”, so turn away now if you want – I need a moment to boast. As soon as Kevin’s little sister, Celia, was introduced, I had a sneaking suspicion that she and Franklin were dead at the time of Eva writing these letters. I totally called it! That almost never happens, so I’m very proud. Time to reward myself with another book!

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Need To Talk About Kevin:

  • “Save your money and your time:
    1. Kevin is bad.
    2. It’s his parents’ fault.” – trav86
  • “She writes a good sentence, but only a masochist would read the whole thing.” – A reader in Berkeley
  • “The mother is a narcissistic, immature, spoiled, cold, unmaternal, whiny, completely unlikable hag. No wonder her child is a psychopath.” – Am
  • “I was excited to read this after seeing all the reviews about how well written it is. Apparently well written just means the author owns a thesaurus.” – Pamela

1 Comment

  1. The movie is truly fantastic, rewatched it recently. Total Tilda Swinton fangirl, here. Shriver is also a must-read for me, but definitely one where you need to separate the art from the artist!

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