We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
Pubished by Counterpoint, 2003
Reviewed by Kari Tanaka

This book had been sitting on my bedside table for a number of months , and somehow managed to always find its way to the bottom of my “things to read next” pile.  I’m not sure why I kept ignoring it in favour of one of the other titles that also found their way into this perpetually revolving stack, although the fact that this book came into my possession in the first place because my dad “just couldn’t get into it” and handed it to me in much the same way that he would offer up some questionably fresh food, (“This ice cream tastes funny, do you want some?”), might have had something to do with it.  Ironically, it was the preview for the movie version of We Need to Talk About Kevin, that inspired me to pick up the book, a process that usually happens in reverse.  Indeed I was in the theatre to begin with to check out the movie adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, because the book by Jonathan Safran Foer was so damned good.  So, a seriously intense ninety-second preview lead me to begin a journey through four hundred pages of seriously intense fiction.
 We Need to Talk About Kevin is written as a series of letters by Eva Khatchadourian to her absent husband, Frankilin, about Thursday.  We soon find out that Thursday refers to the day that their fifteen year old son, Kevin, decided to go on a murderous rampage at Gladstone High School, brutally killing seven classmates, a cafeteria worker and a teacher.  The letters are Eva’s way of trying to make sense of her son and what led him to commit such a horrible act.  They are intense and excruciatingly candid.  Eva sugar coats nothing, including the distaste that she felt for her son from the moment he was conceived.  The pregnancy, although planned, was an intrusion on her body, her marriage, and her career.  When she did not feel the immediate attachment with Kevin that she expected the moment he was born, her dislike for him grew even stronger.  The reader is pulled through fifteen years of tension between a mother and son who are unable, or unwilling, to bond, a father who is so desperate for a Happy Days relationship with his son that he is blind to the truths that surround him, and an innocent little daughter/sister that is caught in the middle of it all.
Whether Kevin’s “evilness” is an issue of nature or nurture remains up for readers to debate.  I can honestly say that Eva, Kevin, and Franklin are three of the most despicable characters that I have come across in a long time.  In fact, all three made my skin crawl like nails were being simultaneously scraped across the chalkboard of my brain as I lifted each word from the page.  Eva is exceptionally selfish, cold, and downright cruel to Kevin at times and unabashedly favours little sister, Celia, when she comes into the picture.  Kevin, who you would think should earn empathy, especially in his baby and toddler years, also displays a horribly evil personality that cannot be blamed on Eva’s indifference alone.  Franklin is such a pathetically weak excuse for a man and husband and is so plastic that he garners as much empathy as a Ken doll.  Yet, despite all of this, I could not help but read on to find out how this train wreck would end.  That, to me, is the mark of a great writer and a great novel.  To be able to propel readers through a story that is rife with such unlikeable characters takes a great amount of talent.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a difficult, but worthwhile, read that sheds light on a variety of contemporary social issues.  In addition to struggling with whether or not evil is inherent or learned, the novel also touches on our need to become eager audience members as details of horrible events unfold before our eyes.  At one point, while being interviewed by a reporter, Kevin waves his hand in front of the camera saying that there are so many audience members and not enough stars.  The subplot of Mary Wolford suing Eva for negligent parenting resulting in the killing of Mary’s daughter, speaks to the need of placing blame and receiving financial gain as the result of the tragedy.  There is also an interesting section describing a theory that children who grow up in affluent families are apt to become depressed because they know their lives are never going to get better than they already are.  All of these issues, of course, circle the larger nature versus nature theme that permeates the novel.
So, fellow readers, I will leave it up to you to decide the answer to the big “why” at the end of this book which is available at all fine bookstores, including your University bookstore and I would be truly interested to hear what you think.  If you have read the book, are reading the book, or have seen the movie, please track me down in the bookstore in person, by e-mail, on Facebook, or on Twitter.  I’d love to hear about which side of the debate you fall on.

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Monday, November 13, 2017 (All day)
The Bookstore will be closed Monday November 13th to observe the Remembrance Day stat.