” You pick on him. You blame him for everything that goes wrong around this house. And at his kindergarten. You’ve complained about the poor kid at every stage of the game. … He doesn’t play right—meaning the way you did. He doesn’t treat the toys you make him like museum pieces. … He develops one, yes, serious psychological problem having to do with his toilet training—it’s not that unusual, Eva, but it can be very painful for the kid—and you insist on interpreting it as some mean-spirited, personal contest between you and him. I’m relieved he seems to be over it, but with your attitude I’m not surprised it lasted a long time. I do what I can to make up for your—and I’m very sorry if this hurts your feelings, but I don’t know what else to call it—your coldness. But there’s no substitute for a mother’s love, and I am damned if I am going to let you freeze out another kid of mine. ” (19 January 2001, p.209)
We Need to Talk About Kevin is told in epistolary form, through the letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to her absent husband, Franklin Plaskett, about two years after the mass murder, known as Thursday, in which her teenage son Kevin locked down the school gym and and killed nine carefully selected people. As a guilt-stricken Eva digs into her own history, her son’s, and quests for the responsible party, the novel explores the rials of maternity and the traumatic impact it can have on marriage. The book flips back and forth between Kevin’s childhood and Eva’s current struggle as she travails as the universally shunned mother of the infamous teen.
Later we’d joke about how long I held out and how I begged for relief only once it was withdrawn, but at the time it wasn’t funny.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. (12 December 2000, p.76)
Eva, to begin with, dreads about parenthood. Proprietor of a successful travel literature company, she does not want to sacrifice the freedom to travel. She succumbs to her husband’s entreaties and conceives Kevin, who from day one has been difficult to love, and has thwarted her in every way. He shuns breast milk, refuses to talk, refuses to be toilet trained. He destroys Eva’s lovingly decorated study before rapidly progressing to tamper with the brake of a neighboring boy’s bike, blind his little sister in one eye and falsely accuses his drama teacher of sexual harassment. This is all before the incident with the cross bow in the gym that lands him in juvenile prison. During all this, the father has withdrawn to some fictitious American Dream and making Eva, full of frustration, the evil mom and loser.
Franklin, I’d never appreciated how much energy you expended to maintain the fiction that we were a broadly happy family whose trifling transient problems just made life more interesting. Maybe every family has one member whose appointed job is to fabricate this attractive package. (16 March 2001, p.346)
Kevin shows on signs of a mass murderer. In school he’s a straight B student. He is not weird or threatening. He doesn’t wear all black. But he is a social satirist, inaccessible and sarcastic. Is he world-weary? As the book slowly moves toward its destructive climax, Eva, shifting between self-pity, guilt, and regret, ponders the inevitable questions: Why did he do it? and How far are we, his parents, to blame? Was Kevin born evil? Or does her dislike of Kevin drive him so nihilistically off the rails? Is she beyond the prevention of the tragedy?
Shriver has managed to frame the narrative from the point-of-view of Eva in such a way that the whole veracity of the story depends on whether reader trusts her or not (although she is obviously an unreliable narrator). In short, how we see Eva and Kevin will depend a lot on who we are. The book is beautiful yet very disturbing. Eva’s voice carries the pace. The novel forces us, as a society, to confront assumptions about love and parenting, about how and why we apportion blame, about forgiveness and redemption, and about how we can manage when the answer to the question why is too complex for human comprehension. Could this obsession with answer be the root of our blame culture?
400 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, Literature Tagged: | American Literature, Books, General Fiction, Lionel Shriver, Literature, We Need to Talk About Kevin