I can’t remember the last time I threw a book across the room. Well, I did that several times on the long, painful day I read We Need to Talk About Kevin.
I had my reasons. Mostly, the characters, and, of course, the way Lionel Shriver pushes their story – their stupidity, confusion, humanity… call it what you want – in your face.
Start with the mother, Eva Khatchadourian – hey bitch, your son is redlining a Harley on the highway to hell, and you’re making only modest bleats of distress.
The father, Franklin – hey moron, your son is a stone-cold psychopath, he’s playing you for a chump, and all you can think is that your wife exaggerates his problems.
The kid himself, the Kevin of the title – hey punk, you get off on seeing people suffer? You have a bit of a problem accessing anything like a human feeling? Cool. Take this. [Sound of a total whoop–ass beating.]
So I threw the book. As would you. Because this novel tells us, right at the get–go, that on April 8, 1999, Kevin has taken a cross–bow to his New Jersey high school and killed seven students, a cafeteria worker and the teacher who cared most for him. He has been tried and sentenced and is now in jail, with five years (just five?) still to serve. His mother, now living alone, is trying to make sense of this disaster, and is writing the story in the form of letters to her husband.
Of course the blood boils. Imagine the mother of one of the Columbine killers writing a book about her son. Sure, she feels terrible for the victims and their families and the circle of pain that her kid’s actions have caused. But her focus – her necessary focus – is on her own family. And her book cannot help but become a plea for understanding. As if her suffering was in the same universe as the suffering of the innocent dead and their uncomprehending families!
And then there is our Need to Know. How does a kid plan a mass murder so expertly that nobody sees it coming? Are these increasingly common death orgies in high schools payback for violent video games and gangsta rap? Is there such a thing as a Bad Seed, a kid who’s born defective and can’t be fixed? Does Evil walk among us, in human form?
All these questions burn through this book, both on the page and in your head. Especially the ultimate age–old accusation: ‘It’s always the mother’s fault.’
We Need to Talk About Kevin runs to 400 pages not because Ms. Shriver has a lot to say about Kevin, but because Eva is obsessed with that last question – it’s her Need to Know. And so she must take us back to life before Kevin, when she was a successful travel book publisher, a self–satisfied wife, a liberal snob with a nice loft in lower Manhattan. Having a child was an issue and a decision, and she took her time. And then, one night, without telling her husband, she doesn’t use birth control.
Nine months later (no, two weeks beyond… was Kevin sending a message that he didn’t want to be in this world?), here’s Kevin. Eva can’t bond with him. For his part, he’s remote and truculent. Wears diapers until he’s six. Can spend an entire Saturday watching the Weather Channel. Writes essays for school in a mocking Dick–and–Jane style. His defiance escalates. He ‘accidentally’ squirts grape juice on Eva’s favourite white kaftan. Is the babysitter when his little sister loses an eye. Leaves computer discs around that are crawling with viruses. And then, the event Eva simply calls ‘Thursday.’
When it comes – and it comes late in the book – the massacre is just as terrible as if it had been the first chapter, which is where a lesser novelist would have placed it. Maybe it’s even worse, because by then we know how much of the iceberg is below the surface, and how very cold it is there. And there is another shocker – I’m not telling, and you won’t see it coming – that takes this horror story into a whole other dimension.
I hate the death penalty, but not for Kevin. By the time of Eva’s final visit to her son in jail, I wanted this punk dead. And that was for openers. I thought about people I don’t know doing terrible things to people I love, and how clear it would be to me that the Law was inadequate to punish them, and the sad satisfaction I would take in breaking their bones, one by one, as they begged me to spare them.
Wow. My blood was pounding… all because of a novel, a made–up story! And then, after reading the end, I turned back to the quote at the start of the book. It’s from Erma Bombeck, who was no fool: ‘A child needs your help most when he deserves it least.’
And I thought about where Eva was at the end of the book, and, for the first time, how it might feel to be her – to be the mother of that boy, to be known as his mother until the end of time, to grow old being in some kind of relationship to that killer. And, you guessed it, I shed a tear. As will you.
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