I won’t lie. This is one of the most psychologically disturbing books I’ve ever read. I had to have a cuddle session to get the troubling images from the last pages of the book out of my mind. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver was a wonderfully written book, and in a grim way was even beautiful. But it certainly wasn’t a fairy tale ending like the last book I read. Despite its disconcerting nature, the book was almost impossible to put down.
Shriver is a brilliant novelist with a fantastic understanding of the human psyche. The novel is told in the first person in the form of letters–a woman writing to an estranged husband. In these letters she explores the events of their marriage, beginning with the time they start discussing children, all the way up to the two year anniversary of their 18-year-old son’s violent rampage at his school which left 10 people dead. From the very beginning it’s evident that Eva’s decision to have a child is rather reluctant. When her son Kevin is born, Eva makes it clear to the reader that there is something wrong with him. Even as a toddler, his animosity towards her is obvious, and she is wary of him all through his growing up. He is too smart for his age, as well as secretive, tidy, and silent. She is often disturbed by the mature and evil intelligence in his eyes. Eva sees what her husband is blind to: the kids around Kevin all suffer misfortune, or nasty pranks, and avoid him. He has few friends. As he grows older, he is a danger to his sister. He is a menace to his teachers. While her husband believes him to be a healthy boy, which Kevin convinces him of by putting on a facade of niceness for his father, Eva is very much convinced that her son is a sociopath and dangerous to those around him. Still, when there is a shooting at his school, Eva’s mind does not immediately go to Kevin as a culprit, and she worries about his safety when she first hears news of the events.
Her letters are emotionally evocative explorations of her life over the past twenty years or so, and also describe the navigation of her daily life in the present, where she is still shunned by most of society for the actions of her son. At times she can be long-winded, but despite the drawn-out exegeses of Kevin’s strange ways, one cannot help but but be morbidly enthralled by her misery and his maliciousness. Shriver builds interest for her readers by leaving some mystery until the very end: why did Kevin do it? How did he do it? Where is her husband and why doesn’t he know what’s happened with his son? The build up to what the reader knows is coming is extremely stressful and nerve-wracking, but despite my best guesses as to the events themselves, there’s no way to predict what actually happens. I was floored. Horrified.
As I warned earlier, this is not a feel good novel. Sometimes I wonder at why these sorts of things are written. But there is an ugly side to humanity and there are artists who are deft at capturing it in their work. Shriver is one of these artists. Her willingness to address something normally taboo and her skill in doing so put her at the top of my list of favorite authors. The dark-hearted sinner in me loved this book, and I think for anyone who shares the same morbid fascinations and tastes, the same will go for you.
Another note, it’s now a movie. Tilda Swinton, one of the ugliest women I’ve ever seen and not Armenian (as the character in the book is), plays the mother. Still, despite how off-putting she is, I want to see it. I’d like to see how the filmmakers interpreted Shriver’s writing.