BOOK REVIEW: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Eva Khatchadourian didn’t want kids and hated being a mother. Her son Kevin didn’t want to be born and hated being alive. This book follows their relationship. A fiery feud that will likely never cease. This book is described as ‘stripping motherhood bare’ and does not hold back on how difficult it is to raise children and keep a family intact, even without having a psychotic child.

The novel, set in New York in the 1990s and 2001, sees Eva trying to come to terms with her past by writing letters to her estranged husband, Franklin, and describing the 16 years that lead to her son, Kevin, shooting seven classmates, a beloved teacher and a cafeteria worker. From when he was born, Eva knew Kevin was different. When he was handed to her when he was born, she felt he was “disgruntled” and “inert” to her presence. When Kevin was a child Eva quipped “I have never met anyone […] who found his existence more of a burden or indignity.”

Kevin behaved exceptionally badly as a child

Kevin does more and more outrageous things that only Eva seems to consider abnormal for a child. Franklin however has this vision of and dedication to an All-American family, playing baseball with his son in the yard outside, sipping lemonade on a Sunday. He therefore cannot believe what Eva is saying and always rationalises what Kevin does. For example, Kevin keeps wearing a diaper until the age of six and refuses to use a toilet. Eva sees this as a purposeful move to annoy his parents, but Franklin sees it as Kevin having a quirk and needing to learn to use the bathroom in his own time. Which is it? Only spending a long time learning about Kevin can tell.

The take home lessons

Some of the biggest lessons I learn from the book were how to do something that seems insurmountable and how psychotic characters develop into monsters if they are not reigned it and why school shootings happen.

The first lesson is seen when Eva is a travel writer for her company On a Wing and a Prayer, where she seemingly doesn’t want to go to her destinations but forces herself to make the call to book the ticket, pack her bag and go without much motivation and joy but moving one step at a time toward her goal. She says towards the end of the book “the secret is that there is no secret”. She discovers that the fear of doing something is all in one’s head.

While this may sound enlightening and hopeful, this can lead to horrible results. Kevin cultivated this logic from his mother to plan and set up the school shooting he was part of. All he had to do was acquire a weapon and pull the trigger. A very alarming realisation he had that ended him in jail.

Why did Kevin shoot his classmates?

The book gives several answers to this question. Although He may have accomplished his nihilistic goals and showed the world he can do whatever he wants, those people are now dead and Kevin is no better off. Was it really worth it? Kevin will have to contemplate this for a very long time.

I enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin as of its incredibly precise descriptions and development of the terrifying character Kevin. During my reading I felt genuinely scared of Kevin and sorry for Eva. I also enjoyed the pace of the book, lightly building to the inescapable climax towards the end of the book known as Thursday. Although I didn’t really know where the book was going in the first 50 pages or so, but the book quickly accelerated beyond this phase.

This is a unique novel

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a very unique novel it didn’t really have any right or wrong answers. Was Kevin really this ‘bad seed’, an evil, unempathetic being, or was his pessimistic views inherited from superior and unenthusiastic mother? Is his father, Franklin, an idiot for not believing Eva, or was his views of Kevin closer to the truth? Do Kevin and Eva have a cease-fire at the end of the book, or are they simply reloading for the next chapter of an endless feud? The book hints at answers but concludes that there isn’t a ‘right’ answer and the reader must decide.

I can’t really think of any comparable books I have read. Possibly crime thrillers such as The Killing Kind by John Connolly and at a stretch Lord of the Flies by William Golding, where slowly more and more cruel things occur. Besides from that, this book will be a fresh experience for most readers. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in unchecked psychotic characters and motherhood.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a great read and I understand how it got around so easily in the US in part due to word of mouth. The book it powerful and thought-provoking, many conversations being had between me and my sister about the events and motivations of characters in the book. Although the book softly sizzled in the first fifty pages, it lit to a blaze after that. Read this book if you want some seriously troubled character and Nietzschen philosophical dilemmas to ponder.

★★★★☆ – Really liked it.