We Need To Talk About Kevin – flinch and you’ll miss it

Ok, so We Need To Talk About Kevin isn’t a new book. It came out in 2003 and went on to win the Orange Prize in 2005. Its profile, given its emotive subject matter, has been understandably huge…and yet I’ve never been tempted to read it. I only picked it up recently because I couldn’t find much else in the library – but when I started reading it I was hooked from the very first page.

Eva Khatchadourian, mother of the notorious high school killer Kevin Khatchadourian, writes a series of letters to her estranged husband Franklin in an attempt to come to terms with her lonely life post-massacre – a life where chopping vegetables for her solitary dinner is an activity that must be made to last, a life where a simple trip to the supermarket means running the gauntlet of guilt of mothers whose children are dead at the hands of her own son.

How do you go on living after your child commits such a gruesome and unnatural act? More importantly, how does a child end up committing such an act? Were there warning signs? Was he born evil or could the whole sequence of events have been stopped somewhere along the way? In short, I wondered, like so many people do when things like this happen, if Kevin’s parents were to blame? Eva isn’t a model mother – at least she’s not a cookie-baking, immensely soothing earth-mother type. She’s an ambitious woman who loves her job and her child-free life but does that make her a terrible mother? Is she a terrible person?

Certainly I recognised something of myself in Eva. In this age of pro-natalism, women often talk about the joy of being pregnant whereas I always imagine it to be akin to something from Alien. Eva confirms this and discusses her private horror at the parasite growing in her belly. She talks about no longer being a driver in her own life and becoming, instead, a vehicle. The husband who once loved her passionately turns into this moralistic bore who brands her irresponsible for dancing wildly around the living room whilst pregnant. I found myself getting indignant for her, knowing I would hate what she describes: the way pregnant women become social property.

Suddenly people on the street feel that they can touch your belly and offer you advice for the future. They expect you to become unselfish as soon as you see the blue line appear on the home-test kit. How often do we hear the phrase ‘nobody’s perfect’ and yet how seldom is this applied to mothers? How often are mothers judged for being anything less than perfect? I soon found myself wondering what right Franklin had to be so damn judgemental and I knew I would have resented his treatment of me as a baby-carrying vessel, not to mention the fact that he treats his son’s word as gospel and doubts his wife’s version of events every time something untoward occurs. Yes, Franklin turns out to be one of those parents who are wilfully blind to their children’s faults…tell me that wouldn’t wear you out if you had a child as cold and cruel as Kevin.

Of course, you could say that Kevin didn’t get cold and cruel by himself. Can we trust our narrator, knowing she was never the most maternal or enthusiastic of parents? Did Kevin become the way he was by nature or nurture? In general, I’ve always been a believer in nurture. I suppose that’s only natural – we all want to live the lives we have chosen, right? The nightmare scenario is doing everything right and ending up with a Kevin. It doesn’t seem fair. It makes life feel futile…of course, this makes the nurture argument sound awfully naïve.

I once read an interview with Louis Theroux where he said that, since he became a father, he has become acutely aware that children have their own distinct personalities beyond what you teach them. That’s certainly true of me and my brother – we were brought up identically but our personalities couldn’t be more different. Do we, then, put too much blame on parents like Eva who struggle to like their children? Perhaps we should be putting the blame on Franklin, the father who couldn’t bear the idea that there was something wrong with his child? Or perhaps we are wrong to look to attribute blame in the first place. Perhaps there is no one we can pin these things on….isn’t that a scary thought?

There’s so much involved in We Need To Talk About Kevin that it’s difficult to discuss it fully here. Suffice to say that the book will be fascinating for anyone with an interest in parenting, the nature/nurture debate or the human mind in general. Lionel Shriver’s style is so elegant, her characters so intricately drawn, her prose so heartbreakingly authentic that I just could not put the book down. It’s the best thing I’ve read all year. I only hope the filmmakers can do it justice when they bring out their version this year.

Buy this book

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2 Comments

Filed under fiction

2 responses to “We Need To Talk About Kevin – flinch and you’ll miss it

  1. Like you, from the first page, I was hooked. Such a scary resonant story. I agree with you on the whole nurture thing – a child can’t become that evil by himself, but I think I do trust the narrator, simply because she’s been open and unapologetic about most of the other things that she indulged in, which society deemed inappropriate for a pregnant lady/mother.

    Doris Lessing’s book, The Fifth Child, reminded me of this book, so in case you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it.

  2. Pingback: We Need to Talk About Kevin – only half the story? | The Literary Kitty

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