Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

weneedtotalkaboutkevin…You can only subject people to anguish who have a conscience. You can only punish people who have hopes to frustrate or attachments to sever; who worry what you think of them. You can really only punish people who are already a little bit good. 

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a best selling, multi-award winning literary fiction turned movie, that tells a story of motherhood and tragedy. Approaching the two year anniversary of Kevin’s murderous rampage that left nine students and two school staff dead, his mother, Eva Khatchadourian, pieces together the events leading up to that day through letters to her estranged husband.

From the offset the way Eva writes, recalls events, talks about herself and others, it is clear she is an unreliable narrator and bad mother, who could likely be the driving force behind Kevin’s killing spree. Eva is cold and selfish, and although she does not embrace the idea of having a child, she agrees to anyway out of “boredom” and fear of losing her husband’s interest.

Eva takes an immediate dislike to her newborn, and when Kevin will not take milk from her breast she takes this as a personal attack – his refusal to accept her is both physical and metaphorical. This first strike marks the beginning of their growing battle and distain for each other.

This book is four hundred plus pages of beautiful prose from Lionel Shriver, but it is by no means an easy read. Besides the gruesome topic the language can be overbearing at times – as is appropriate for a character as arrogant as Eva. There is an extensive amount of backstory that builds up each of the characters, and the story is given a sense of place with markers like the 2000 presidential elections and real-life school shootings that are supposed to take place after Kevin’s.

The case of the murders is not the main plot driver, life after tragedy is. There is no mystery that Kevin has murdered eleven people, the mystery is how him and his family will carry on with their lives afterwards. Although most of the family is unlikable they are sympathetic. By the climax we’ve learned so much about Eva and Kevin’s relationship that we begin to understand it, maybe even more than they do.

We Need To Talk About Kevin takes a horrific topic of mass school murder in America and poses many questions, one of them being: How much are parents to blame for the actions of their children? This book leaves the reader uncomfortable, wanting to turn away, and generously rewarded for not doing so in the end.