We Need to Talk About Kevin


Lionel Shriver is no stranger to controversy. Last year she was dropped from a Penguin short story judge panel for making “offensive” remarks on literary diversity. In a column for the Spectator in June of that month, she angrily wrote: “Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’etre as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision.”

A vast traveller, Shriver divides her time between New York and London. I should say without diversity of thought (far more important than the lottery of race or gender) her 2005 Orange Prize Winner We Need To Talk About Kevin would not have been that rarest of books, both an international bestseller and a word of mouth classic that has haunted parents worldwide.

Narrated by the mother of a school assassin (Kevin Ketchup is his gruesome nickname: his “score” seven) as she writes to his absent father to try and make sense of the deadly, harrowing violence her son committed on a day he simply referred to as Thursday and deal with the guilt and grief that the psychopathic child she raised has caused to her, and to the world. The unspoken question remains, is it sometimes better not to have children when the worst possible circumstances occur?

I have spent the past week rereading this mammoth novel and finding it both moving and disturbing. It takes the form of an epistolary novel, letters to her husband as she literally tries to talk about Kevin, both her progeny and the worst thing that has ever happened to her. The question is raised, can you love a child unconditionally when they have committed genuine evil?

“Don’t be dragging your ass back here on my account,” Kevin tells her on one of the awful prison visits she must suffer, “because I hate you.”

“I often hate you too, Kevin,” is all she can reply.

The nearly 500 page novel is written with stunning and sad honesty, and has a feminine poetry that makes it rare, considering the subject matter. Consider this passage when Eva is considering pregnancy for the first time:

I came to regard my body in a new light. For the first time I apprehended the little mounds on my chest as teets for the suckling of young, and their physical resemblance to udders on cows or the swinging distentions on lactating hounds was suddenly unavoidable. Funny how even women forget what breasts are for. The cleft between my legs transformed as well. It lost a certain outrageousness, an obscenity, or achieved an obscenity of a different sort.

I imagine many women raising children can appreciate the honesty and acuity of this passage, and agree with the different views they had of their bodies once pregnant or after birth. Eva, the narrator, is desperate to rip the past to pieces to make some sense of the horror she now finds in her life, and nothing is off limits. Take this passage on Kevin’s birth:

And suddenly it was (the pain) over. Later we’d joke about how long I held out and how I begged for relief only once it was withdrawn, but at the time it wasn’t funny. In the very instant of his birth, I associated Kevin with my own limitations – with not only suffering but defeat.

That suffering and defeat would define Kevin and his mother’s life makes it one of the most chilling sentences in a novel filled with them.

For readers who have not had the pleasure, I will not spoil the plot, you may even have seen the 2011 Tilda Swinton movie which went down well with audiences, even though I personally would have cast a more sexually alluring actress, finding the role requires a natural feminine and maternal sexuality, specifically between Eva and her husband Franklin. As expected, Kevin is a difficult child from the get go, unable to play, trouble for kindergarten kids and teachers, and eventually, as a teenager, develops an interest in computer viruses – anything, it seems, to cause the mass destruction his borderline personality requires to hide from the reality he cannot understand other humans have feelings and emotions. It is only at the climax, when Kevin is being shipped to a maximum security prison and possible death that he allows his mother to hold him.

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