Warning: contains spoilers
There are times when you come across a novel that sticks with you, long after you finish it. You turn the final page, set it down, and go about your daily life. But part of you is left in ‘reader mode’, one foot still in the world of the book you just read, a small part of your mind still frantically thinking about it. We Need to Talk about Kevin is that book.
I first heard of Lionel Shriver’s modern day classic while reading Noah Hawley’s novel The Good Father. Several people described ‘Kevin’ as being the superior version, the original and the best. I had been sucked in by The Good Father, and so quickly put Shriver’s novel on my reading list. I forgot about it for a while, but a few months later I came across it in a bookstore, and with a spare hour to kill, I bought it and started to read. Within minutes, I knew I had found something very special.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is nothing short of genius. Honestly, it is one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. Maybe ever. It’s got the sort of plotline that you just want to talk about – need to talk about – with anyone who will listen. I didn’t even care if people had never heard of it, or weren’t interested, I found ways to weave it into conversation. Because it’s just that good; it needs to be talked about. I mean, it’s absolutely stunning. From start to finish Lionel Shriver had me on the edge of my seat.
It’s an incredible novel, on so many levels, and a challenging one – challenging in the sense that it makes you take a step back every once in a while and really think. Eva, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, is a profoundly honest woman, disturbingly so at times. Through her, Shriver brings to the surface subjects that most people shy away from in conversation – dark, unspoken thoughts that you would rather bury away and never mention. Reading it was like watching a horror movie – peering through your fingertips, or past the blanket. Part of me wanted to look away from it all, repulsed by everything Kevin was doing, and even more so by how relatable Eva was as a character. But another part of me just couldn’t stop reading it. It was addictive, a novel that pulled me in and refused to let go.
I think I found We Need to Talk About Kevin even more fascinating and thought-provoking because I am a young woman. As a female, it has always alarmed me that there are still many people in society who think a woman is not fully defined as a woman until she becomes a mother. I myself have seriously considered the possibilities of not having children, picturing a life with and without them in it. Because I have never been fixated on the idea of one day becoming a mother, both paths have merit, and Eva highlights the fact that the path without children is an attractive one. Eva is a strong, confident character before Kevin. After him she becomes nervous, so many of her decisions dictated by a small child. At the beginning of the novel she is bold, successful – someone I think any young woman would admire. She has her own business, travels the world, and has a husband who adores her. What more could anyone ask for? But despite being happy where she is, and almost one hundred per cent certain of her desire to not have children, a small part of her wants to open the box, peek past the door, and lift the lid on motherhood. Which makes me wonder – did Eva consciously make the decision to not like Kevin?
In her letters to Franklin, Eva makes it quite clear from the get-go that children were never in her future. She doesn’t experience that surge in maternal feeling that supposedly plagues all women in their late twenties/ early thirties. She doesn’t start to get all doe-eyed and weepy around children, imagining herself as a mother. Instead, it’s the fact that Franklin is late home from work one evening that pushes her over the edge into wanting a child. She wants a child because she wants a physical reminder of Franklin should something ever happen to him – something more solid than a photograph or an old t-shirt. And there’s also that part of her that wants to become a mother because it’s the thing to do. It’s almost as if she sees it like a novelty, something you just have to do at least once in your life – like visiting the Eifel Tower, or sky-diving. Her desire to have a child is fleeting, and upon finding out she is pregnant she almost immediately regrets her spontaneity, begrudging Franklin and the child every step of the 9 month journey, and the years that follow. Her confidence in the belief that she doesn’t want children was shaken for a day or so, and I think this partly makes her more determined to be anti-motherhood. I think she’s stubborn, and because she has it in her mind that she doesn’t want Kevin, she decides that bonding with him isn’t an option, even though they are alike in so many ways at times. She wants to prove to Franklin that she knew all along children weren’t for her, and it’s his fault they’re now in this mess. The point is made stronger by the fact that she openly loves and favours their daughter Celia when she is born, because she made the decision to have her without Franklin. Celia is wholly hers, in almost every sense but one.
Eva’s inability to bond with Kevin becomes increasingly frustrating; after a few years, she appears to not even try anymore. Her habits remind me more of a jealous sibling than a mother, constantly begrudging of Kevin, angry at the fact that he so easily attracts Franklin’s affections. On the flipside, Franklin’s hero-worshipping of his son becomes equally disturbing, and his inability to notice something that almost everyone in the community does – his precious son has an incredibly dark side – is so frustrating that you want to pull your hair out.
Eva’s ability to tell the story does spiral out of control at times. She wants to paint Kevin as the only bad guy in the story, but how can she tell Franklin the whole truth without admitting the fact that she broke their son’s arm in a fit of rage? But despite this weakness, there are things that Kevin does that you cannot put down to Eva being stubborn or biased.
At the centre of it all is the age-old nature versus nurture debate. Is Kevin just an innately evil child? Or is he incomplete from the beginning in some way? Does he sense that Eva doesn’t love him, doesn’t want him, even from the womb? I reckon it’s a hefty mix of both in the end. The concoction of a lack of connection with his mother, the molly-coddling of his father and the individual personality of Kevin are stirred together to make a devastating end product.
The final chapter of We Need to Talk About Kevin had twists I wasn’t expecting; Eva’s sudden, bumpy admission to herself that she does in fact love her son. The suggestion that Kevin may be beginning to feel remorse for what he did, that some shred of compassion lays beneath that cold, cruel and devastatingly barbaric exterior. But it was the penultimate chapter that truly astonished me, that left me gawping and breathless. Because even though I knew all along that Kevin does something terrible, I never suspected him to be that evil. The course of Thursday is quickly set up as a nightmarish one from the beginning. Kevin brutally murders nine people in his school gym, and you think it can’t get any more horrific than that. But Shriver pulls the rug out from under your feet, and you’re left there suddenly realising why Franklin never writes back, and why Celia isn’t with her. Eva turns the floodlights on, lighting up the family backyard, and in the process shines a light on the sheer depth of the darkness within Kevin.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is thought-provoking, powerful and honest. It’s a story that makes you question the strength of a maternal bond, and if can a child flourish properly without it. It’s a tragic story, wonderfully told and expertly crafted. And it’s a book that should be read by everyone.