It can be a little upsetting when you find yourself identifying with the mother of a teenaged killer. But that was likely Lionel Shriver’s point when she wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin sometime after the real-life Columbine shootings that are often referenced in her Orange Prize winning novel.
The book is told in a series of letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her (presumed) estranged husband after an event referred to mostly as Thursday. Through her brutally honest letters we come to learn of her life: before Kevin, with Kevin and after Thursday. At many points in the novel Eva is the envy of many women – well travelled, wealthy, smart, independent etcetera etcetera – and yet no one would actually envy her for she is the mother of Kevin; a despondent, surly, cold, and often malicious boy even from an early age. Almost from birth Kevin’s behaviour pits his parents against one another as he shows what we are to believe are his true colours to his mother while putting on a caricatured version of a happy-go-lucky boy for his father.
To say Kevin’s character is disturbing is not to say anything new. His actions are often heinous and the amount of disdain he holds for his mother is heart-wrenching. Time and time again, Shriver has Eva mention that she wasn’t sure if she even wanted a child as though to force the nature versus nurture debate down the reader’s throat. On some level we are supposed to blame Eva because as a child was growing inside her she questioned her decision to become a mother. If all it took were a little uncertainty to ruin a child I have to think we’d have a lot more Columbines on our hands. To think that Kevin would, on some level, pick up on his mother’s periodic contempt for her first born is not, I don’t think, unbelievable. But the amount of energy he puts into harming her specifically is extraordinary. He saves disturbances for her eyes only – like masturbating with the bathroom door open while watching his mother, destroying his mother’s coveted possessions from her travels or, when asked why he spared his mother’s life in the shootings he responded “When you’re putting on a show, you don’t kill the audience.”
Despite Kevin’s early warning signs, despite his parent’s affluence, despite the acknowledgement of teachers and other authorities that Kevin was not quite right and despite Eva’s instincts telling her Kevin was troubled, Kevin still committed an act of violence that left 11 people dead. This could be Shriver telling us there is no hope since there is no saviour for these kinds of kids, or she could be telling us that the responsibility doesn’t lie with the parents at all since Kevin had “good” parents or perhaps she was simply trying to illustrate that children who commit atrocities are not necessarily products of atrocious environments. Whatever her modus operandi I know I found myself struggling with those questions throughout the book. Jumping from “lock him up” to “kill him with kindness” and back again. But somehow, 400 pages didn’t prepare me for the ending. With only one page remaining in the book, I had all the facts I was going to get. I had made my peace with Kevin and found a category to put him in in my head. Until I turned the page and magically, with one paragraph Shriver managed to turn all of my assumptions on their heads and left me feeling, somehow, more confused then when I started.
On the nightstand: Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup