You know how lately I’ve been kind of on a “creepy book” roll? Well, you can add this one to the pile. I think when I look back on 2009, I will see that my reading definitely had a dark bent to it, although We Need to Talk About Kevin (winner of the 2005 Orange Prize) may just take the cake for most disturbing book I read this year.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is Eva Khatchadourian’s story about the trials and tribulations of motherhood, though from the onset we know that Eva’s burden is heavier than most – her teenage son, Kevin, is currently in prison after having gone on a rampage at his highschool in which he murdered 9 classmates, as well as a teacher. The story jumps back in forth in time, but through Eva’s eyes, we learn how she and her husband came to start a family, and how she has struggled with that decision ever since. With Eva as our guide, we trace Kevin’s life from birth to his teen years and that fateful Thursday afternoon when her own life came crashing down around her.
The story is told in epistolary format, so everything we hear is necessarily colored by Eva’s perspective, and earlier elements of the story are very likely influenced by her hindsight regarding how everything turns out. As such, she’s not the most reliable narrator, and yet the picture she paints that Kevin is a fundamentally flawed human being and these signs have been apparent since his birth is an incredibly convincing one. Moreover, the story she tells (even knowing how it will turn out from the start) is so riveting and sinister that I gulped down the bulk of this novel in a single sitting. The character of Kevin is so offputting even as an infant that I was fascinated to read about how he would develop. I think there’s no doubt that Kevin was fundamentally broken, in all likelihood a psychopath (a topic that, as a cognitive neuroscientist, fascinates me), and yet one of the interesting elements of the novel is how Eva fumbles about, wondering about the extent to which she may have contributed to his character, or even driven him to his actions. On the one level, this story is an action-packed thrill-ride (even if a good deal of the thrills are macabre and ominous), but it is actually very thought-provoking and morally complex as well.
Superficially the book deals with school-shootings and offers one possibility for how these kinds of things can happen, but I think it would be remiss to assume Shriver is offering up an inclusive explanation for such rampages. For me, it felt more like the massacre at the end of the novel is more of a physical manifestation of many problems that had been simmering for a while, rather than the central topic meant to be assessed in the novel. One question that is echoed throughout the pages is why Kevin did what he did, and I think the answer we receive at the end indicates that Shriver is not really attempting to explain the motivation behind these type of attacks. To me what was most interesting about the book were the moral dilemmas and quandaries that revolve around the notion of family. I think when it comes to murders and tragedies, there is a tendency to focus on the victims’ families, but I had never thought of what it must be like for the parents of the killer. How must it feel to have raised a child who goes out and slaughters his peers? Worse still, what do you do if, as a parent, you suspect your child is not quite right and could have the potential to perform such an act? As a parent, can you ever believe your children capable of such an atrocity, and if so, what can you do? Obviously Kevin is an extreme example, but I think Shriver hits at an interesting question, that being that there it is always taken for granted that once you have children, as a parent you will be immediately captivated and connected to that child, you will love the child upon sight; but what happens if you don’t? Eva says that she never felt bonded to her son, he made her feel empty, and with time she realized that not only did she not really love her son, she also didn’t like him much. It’s so horrifying to contemplate this possibility, and yet, I’m sure this does happen. What do you do in this case? Throughout the novel, Shriver also explores the way in which marriages are affected by the arrival of children, the way resentments and rivalries can arise, the way children change your life irrevocably. It’s easy to dismiss Shriver as being overly bleak and grim in her outlook, but if the novel feels sticky at times, I think it’s because there are no easy answers to these questions and that these issues are perhaps unfathomably complicated. At times I felt frustrated with every single character in the book, and yet, you know that this is how the characters themselves must have felt. It seemed so obvious to me at times that Kevin was “evil”, so Eva’s hubby being hoodwinked by him was so aggravating… but who would ever think their child is so fundamentally devoid of all human goodness? And even so, it all comes back to what can you really do in such a situation? So yes, maybe I did get frustrated, but talk about a rock and a hard place, and maybe that emotional response from me was a good thing.
I found the story really engaging and mesmerizing, and there was so much to think about, so many tough questions… yet I couldn’t fully give myself over to the book. Why? Because this is one of those books you read for plot and not for the execution. I don’t want you to think that Shriver is a hack writer or pumps out drecky prose – far from it! No, the real reason this book let me down is because of style issues and the format. As I mentioned above, the novel is written in the form of letters – letters from Eva to her husband Franklin. I fully get why Shriver chose to use a first person narrator – it’s more personal, and it also allows her to use the unreliable narrator device. But by having Eva write to her husband, as a reader, you find yourself saying “Um, wouldn’t Franklin already know most of these things, given that he was there and features in the story she is now relating to him?” or “Wouldn’t Franklin know that he had blond hair and ‘All-American’ values?” I get that Eva wants to share her side of the story, but there’s still too much back-story and scene-setting for this to come across as plausible. Someone who had been a part of the situations she’s recounting is likely going to know exactly what she was talking about… but of course, we as readers wouldn’t, so Shriver has to have Eva essentially overexplain everything, which then makes the narrative device seem clunky and ill-conceived. And fine, by the end of the novel, there’s this thing that happens (that’s as explicit as I can be) that kind of makes the format less egregious (and is also supposed to be a huge twist), but even having guessed what the thing that would happen was going to be, the letter-writing schtick really bothered me. One more thing and I’ll let it drop: at one point she’s talking about why she never really wanted children and she talks about getting fat and says something like “My sister-in-law got really terrible varicose veins…”, and I was all, “Since you’re writing to your HUSBAND, couldn’t you just say ‘Your sister got really terrible varicose veins…’?” It just seemed so awkward and in that moment (amongst many others) the letters were clearly not really being written to her husband, because you would never phrase things like that if you were writing to a spouse. I mean, I wouldn’t write a letter to my mother and say something like “As you recall, my brother, Tyler, studied the tenor saxophone for many years…”, because of course she recalls that he did so, and also that he’s my brother…
Anyway, moving on. So, the letter format was awkward and unfortunate, but the other thing that got my goat was Shriver’s totally weird vocabulary. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim one needs to keep a dictionary in hand when reading this book, but Shriver is not scared of big/uncommon/archaic words. It didn’t exactly come across as pretentious (most of the time), but I will say that when an author uses certain uncommon words frequently enough, it’s noticeable and is like a needle scratching on a record, because it flings you out of the story as you say things like, “How many times has she used rectitudinous now?” (by my count, it was 3 times). I think the other reason her language at times vexed me is simply because, again, this is supposed to be a first-person account, and at times the writing was so florid and had such convoluted sentence structure that once more, you don’t buy that someone is really writing this in a letter. As a review in the Guardian UK pointed out, who would have the time to write in this fashion?
Ok, final writing-related beef and then I’ll wrap this thing up. The problem with a first-person RETROSPECTIVE narrative is that it makes it hard to use verbatim dialogue in an acceptable way. Are we really supposed to believe that Eva remembers, WORD FOR WORD, conversations she had with her husband 20 years ago? I’ve got a memory like a steel-trap, but no, that’s not going to happen. It’s a picky thing to get in a snit about, but I’m just putting it out there for you as something that sticks out, and it prevents the book from being unmitigatedly awesome.
The holy grail of books is one with strong writing and strong story; some books you read because they’ve got lovely writing even if the plot is watery, and others have great plot and lots of meaty ideas and topics to tackle, but the writing doesn’t knock your socks off. As I said, Shriver is certainly no slouch when it comes to words and she weaves a fantastic tale that is emotionally and morally complex – I got very invested in what I was reading – but she doesn’t quite have the chops to execute the story in the way she set out to. That is certainly a shame, but I have to say that ultimately I did enjoy the book a good deal. Despite some flaws, I appreciated the multi-faceted story she created. It’s messy, tragic, dark, and some of the worst things you could ever conceive of, but it’s given me tons to think about. Parents (or people thinking of being parents…) might choose to avoid this one, but I’m glad that I read it, and may very well read it again one day when I feel like torturing myself (in mostly a good way).
Also, please check out Raych’s review over at Books I Done Read, because her review touches on many of the same things as mine, but it is also hilarious while conveying how creepy this book really is. Perhaps it’s finally time to tackle one of the lighthearted reads that is bound to be sitting on my shelves?
Rating: 4 out of 5