Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Schriver

The winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, We Need to Talk About Kevin has hit the public interest again recently thanks to the critically acclaimed film adaptation, released last week in the UK.

The book is the story of Eva Khatchadourian, whose fifteen year old son has just shot and killed people at his school and is now in jail for his crimes. She writes letters to her now absent husband, Kevin's father Franklin, which examine in great detail who is at fault for the events that took place on that fateful Thursday.

The entire book is written in letter format which makes for a challenging read but once you become accustomed to the daring style, Eva's own version of events will draw you in. At no point does she say definitively that Kevin is evil. Likewise, she never confesses that she thinks it is all her own fault. She looks instead at how things were for her as if trying to make Franklin understand why her relationship with her son has always been strained.

The book is all written in hindsight as it cuts from modern day comments about her visiting Kevin in jail and what they talked about to her memories of him throughout his life. As a baby he didn't latch and screamed non-stop whenever it was just him and Eva in the room. As a toddler she noted intellect and menace where Franklin saw a naughty child starved for affection. As he gets older, she sees things in him that makes her question his motives. She tries to have a relationship with him but it just never seems to happen.

But Eva is not the poor innocent victim in all this. While some doctors told her she probably had post-natal depression, she felt a detachment from Kevin from the start which never abated. Not a native American herself, Eva often talks about all the things she dislikes about Americans and the country they live in. This gives her an air of superiority which it seems Kevin picked up on. A successful business owner and traveller before Kevin's birth, she seems to resent the time spent at home with him. She also seems frustrated with him, even as a baby, that he is not offering her all she expected to come with parenthood - as though this is not what she signed up for.

We Need To Talk About Kevin never presumes to tell the reader what really caused Kevin to shoot his classmates. It breaks down the relationship between him and his mother into small digestible pieces and mirrors it with the relationship Eva witnessed between Franklin and Kevin. "Mr Plastic", as Kevin calls him, is the model father, always taking Kevin's side, always taking him out on day trips and listening when he speaks. To Eva though, she sees Kevin as fake only when playing the dutiful son with Franklin. With her, he is his real detached and quietly menacing self.

The final section of the book will leave you breathless as Eva recounts that day and what it was like. She recalls with precision the conversation over breakfast, the moment she found at at work that something had happened at her son's school and then details the chain of events that she has now learned happened within the school walls.

Though I fully acknowledge that this book will not be for everyone, I consider it to be fictional perfection. Schriver has taken a theme relevant to people all over the world, especially the US, and made it personal. Instead of saying outright that people are born evil or become evil due to their parents (parents of school shooting victims in the US have filed lawsuits claiming as such), she dares to examine the massive expanse of grey area between these points.

A masterpiece.


We Need To Talk About Kevin: Book vs film

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