Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is far from the celebratory type of book that I suppose would be more appropriate a way to ring in the New Year, but it’s definitely a must read. I first read it a few years ago, when it was getting a lot of buzz. I didn’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember thinking it was a very emotionally powerful book.
Confession: I re-read it because of the movie. My sister and I saw the trailer, and my sister was so intrigued by it that we immediately bought a copy of the book. That night, she asked me if she could read it before sleeping: “It’s not too creepy, is it? Because the trailer looked very creepy.” I assured her that I remember it being very emotional, but not quite as horror-movie as the movie trailer suggested. Much later that night, she woke me up: “I thought you said it wasn’t creepy?!” Oops. She devoured it overnight, and the next day was still so disturbed that she wanted to talk about it. I finally had to admit that it’s been years since I’d read it, so I was fuzzy on some of the details. Still, her enthusiasm so intrigued me that I decided to read it again.
My last book of 2011, and my first of 2012, We Need to Talk About Kevin is even more powerful than I remembered. Fair warning: it is creepy. It’s chilling and disturbing, and you won’t want to put the book down. Kevin is about the family of a teenager who kills his classmates and a teacher. But unlike many of the school shooters in the news, many of whom seem to have led tragic lives as social outcasts, Kevin appears more like a psychopath than a troubled victim. From the moment he is born and rejects his mother’s breasts, his mother Eva senses there’s something wrong. Kevin grows up a very creepy boy, scaring away his playgroup and a series of baby sitters. While Eva is increasingly disturbed by what she sees as a power struggle between her and her son, her husband Franklin is wilfully blind to Kevin’s faults, and is determined to maintain a Happy Days family image.
Kevin, as real-life school shootings do, raises the question of nature vs nurture. Could Eva and Franklin, as Kevin’s parents, have prevented his act? Also, as in real-life, Kevin provides no easy answers. Certainly, Eva admits she is far from blameless — she finds herself unable to form an attachment to her son, even though the mother-son bond is supposed to come naturally. Shriver is a very talented writer, and I love the scenes where she blurs the lines between mother and child, good and evil. For example, Eva once tells Kevin about her distaste for much of the American way of life, particularly how arrogant and materialistic she finds Americans. Kevin, quite rightly, points out that she is just as arrogant and materialistic as other Americans, particularly in the way she thinks herself superior to them. On one hand, it’s a distressing moment — Eva had thought that by being honest with her son, they were finally bonding, only to have her hopes shot down by Kevin. On the other hand, Kevin has a point in saying that the only thing that differentiates Eva from her image of Americans is that she isn’t overweight, and that perhaps he’d rather a mother who was a “cow” and yet not as condescending.
In another, particularly touching scene, Eva watches static on TV and wonders if this is how life is for Kevin. Does he feel as bored in his everyday existence as she does zoned out in front of a defective TV? It’s difficult to feel sympathy for a teenager who cold-bloodedly plans the execution of his classmates, but with that single image of a static-filled TV, I actually did feel for him. The last scene between mother and son in the novel is without a trace of sentimentality, yet I had to pause for a moment just to absorb all it contained.
I love how Shriver uses such subdued, matter of fact writing to deal with such emotional content. The no-nonsense nature of Eva’s narration heightens all the horror and pain and, possibly, even a hint of love, in the story. The title comes from Eva’s plea to Franklin throughout most of the book that they deal with the reality of their son’s issues. However, the title will also definitely apply to the reader. Kevin is an amazing, powerful, chilling book that just blew me away.
I think it also helped that, reading it a second time, I was imagining Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller as Eva and Kevin. I don’t remember how I imagined the characters to look when I first read it, but bravo to the casting director. Ezra Miller is even more chilling than I think I would’ve imagined Kevin to be, and I can’t wait for the movie. Amazing book, amazing trailer!