Lionel Shriver’s Orange Prize-winning eighth novel We Need to Talk About Kevin deals with the controversial themes of maternal ambivalence, juvenile delinquency and other difficult, generally glossed-over facets of marriage and parenthood.
The book, on the surface, seems an attempt to explore the underlying psychological complexities of a juvenile delinquent, Kevin Khatchadourian, responsible for a horrifying school massacre. The incident finds echoes with the Columbine High School shoot-out involving two high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who killed twelve students and a teacher. Through the course of the story, the book expands its scope to explicate on the anxieties – seemingly commonplace at first glance but of great significance, nevertheless – experienced by couples when confronted with the prospect of having a child.
Kevin’s mother Eva Khatchadourian, through a sequence of letters to her estranged husband Franklin, narrates the events leading up to that momentous day ominously referred to as Thursday when their first-born Kevin brutally murders nine people using bow and arrows.
Shriver’s incisive writing tracks Eva’s struggle to understand the reasons behind Kevin’s violent outburst. As the narrative progresses, Eva comprehends that Kevin may not have been singularly responsible for the massacre. His entire upbringing – never lacking in any material comforts whatsoever – including Franklin and Eva too, may have played a pivotal role first in shaping Kevin’s personality and later in failing to attend to and correct his faults.
Eva is the quintessential modern woman with a high profile career. Despite being initially unwilling, she decides to have a child – through not entirely unselfish reasons. Kevin turns out to be a problem child right from the day of his birth when he refuses to be breastfed, as if a reaction to Eva’s own reluctant foray into motherhood. Eva finds Kevin relentlessly difficult to handle: he refuses to be potty-trained until six, once rampages through Eva’s study destroying all of her beloved possessions and is cunning enough to conceal his vicious side from his adoring father. Kevin gradually distances Franklin from Eva and gives rise to yet another cause for his mother’s growing resentment towards him. Or so it seems.
But Eva is not completely innocent. She is, by turns, indifferent or downright cruel in her behavior with Kevin. In one touching incident, an ailing Kevin requests Eva to read aloud the story of Robin Hood to him. This incident reveals him to be almost normal, leading to the realization that Eva is a highly unreliable narrator. She may be cleverly molding the story to show herself in a more favorable light, trying to somehow be absolved of any responsibility in Kevin’s murderous spree.
Although Shriver’s slightly awkward prose may take some getting used to, the read is, finally, very rewarding. The book foregrounds every misgiving, fear and apprehension a new parent encounters and impresses on the reader how vulnerable they are after the birth of a child. Through the character of Kevin, who seems to be Eva’s personal nightmare – ceaselessly stifling her growth and freedom – the book gives voice to a harsh and usually taboo aspect of parenthood: some parents may not necessarily love their own children.
The novel addresses the universal, never-ending debate of nature versus nurture. Was Kevin so wholly unlikeable as to merit Eva’s complete negligence? Is it possible for a person to be inherently evil? How much of people’s actions are governed by outside forces and how much by unalterable personal traits?
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a compelling and profound book. It insists we focus our attention to the urgent questions confronting the contemporary society where paradigms of parenthood, femininity and maternal love are continually shifting and portrays how people everywhere endeavour to redeem themselves in the face of pain and tragedy.