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17th May
2009
written by Steph
 But do we really?

But do we really?

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

13 Comments

  1. 05/17/2009

    Huh, for some reason I thought this book was about something entirely different.

  2. 05/17/2009

    Steph.. another stellar review from you! Okay, at first I wasn’t really interested in this book, because I don’t like the topic, I’m sure it will depress me. But then I started reading your review and, hey, when you mentioned about this being from a mother’s perspective, I made up my mind to read this because it might give me important insights. And then you wrote about the writing:

    “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.”

    So, no, I won’t read it after all. I’m pretty sure I will not enjoy this as I will only be distracted by this point you mentioned.

    Which brings me to the fact about how talented a writer Marilynne Robinson really is. Gilead being epistolary, you will never get that feeling with the book. At all. Would you agree it is kind of masterful to be able to describe to a reader what you want to convey but at the same time make the letters and voice convincingly real? Gilead’s plot might not be as gripping as Kevin’s, but it definitely is great writing, and so subtle you won’t even know how good she is until after you’ve contemplated on it.

  3. I loved this book – it is just so thought provoking. I can’t believe that Lionel Shriver has never had any children, as the emotions she explains are just spot on.

    I’m actually reading her book Post-Birthday World at the moment. I’m really hoping it is as good as Kevin.

  4. 05/18/2009

    I’ve been meaning to read this book, not just because i’ve heard such good things about it, but because I am curious how she handles the narration. After reading your comments, I’d really like to see what I think.

    Did you read the New Yorker article on psychopathy a few months back? It was really interesting!

  5. 05/18/2009

    @ charley: For a long time I thought this book was about having an autistic child – I have no idea why! Clearly, I was wrong!
     
    @ claire: This is definitely one of those books that was a great story but it was a shame about the writing. I don’t regret having read it, but I do wish certain things had been executed better. I’ll be really curious to read Gilead and compare it to this, as it sounds like the two books are complete opposites!
     
    @ Jackie: I’ve heard good things about The Post-Birthday World; I look forward to your thoughts! I picked this one because it was the cheaper option at the used bookstore. I am not sure how I feel about tackling TPBW now – elements of Shriver’s writing really bugged me (not just the letter format, but her actual style – why such pretentious, convoluted language at times, Ms. Shriver?), and if the story and the underlying material hadn’t been so good, I’m not sure that I would have liked the book at all. I agree she was so insightful and asks really interesting questions… maybe if TPBW doesn’t have a first-person narrator I won’t be so annoyed by her literary tics?
     
    @ verbivore: Shriver doesn’t completely fumble the narration here, but I would say it is the novel’s weakest element. As I said, there is something that occurs later on that might mitigate some of the letter format’s clunkiness, but it didn’t wholly excuse it in my mind!
    I didn’t read the New Yorker article… I’ll have to check it out!

  6. what a literate review! i admire how you point out the good and bad–and SUPPORT your opinions. i think that some bloggers confuse book reviewing with plot retelling. many end up regurgitating the plot without really reviewing the book for literary merit. i understand that a synopsis should be included, but don’t just give me the story line!

    brava!

  7. 05/19/2009

    @ nat: Thanks for the kind words! I personally dislike book reviews that go on and on about the plot, because I can find that stuff out for myself simply by looking at a book’s back cover. I suppose my approach to book reviewing is to make sure it doesn’t come across as a book report. I agree that a synopsis (brief!) is necessary to ground the reader, but I like my reviews to be an account of how I responded to a book. I’m glad you found this one helpful.

  8. 05/19/2009

    What an interesting review!

    I had never heard of this book but the subject caught my attention. I think it ives a different perspective on a very difficult subject; books and articles often write about the victims and their families, but less often about the “other side”.

    I find the epistolar approach one of the most difficult to fake in litterature; the exemples you pointed out in this book are good exemples why! It’s hard to stay true to the genre while writing in a way that the readers won’t get lost in details they couldn’t know otherwise.

  9. 05/19/2009

    I can see how a somewhat unreliable narrator would be more appropriate in telling this type of a traumatic story. Imagine the emotional turmoil afterwards and the whole psychological distortion that preceded the tragic event, what the narrator tells might be an aspect of truth but not the whole truth because nobody might perceive what really goes on. My heart is beating hard while reading your thoughtful review because I’m afraid you might give it a lower rating than a 4, as I have heard mixed reviews about this book.

  10. 05/20/2009

    @ kittykay: Yeah, I was really intrigued by Shriver’s examining the other perspective in these types of tragedies – it was one of the things that really kept me riveted! You have a good sense of how the victims’ families will react, but what about the family on the other side? And yes, the epistolary format is clearly a tricky little animal – I think you need a really good premise to pull it off.
     
    @ Matt: I went with a 4 because even though the book had its faults, I ultimately really enjoyed it. It might not be storytelling at its finest, but there was a really awesome story being told, and that counts for something in my book. I really connected with the characters and I got completely sucked into the story and thought about it for a while afterwards, so even though it had problems, I thought it was a worthwhile read (and not just for me, but for others!).

  11. 05/20/2009

    I think you point out the book’s faults accurately. I wasn’t even sure I’d get past the first 90 pages until, well, I got past the first 90 pages and Kevin really gets evil. If nothing else, this is a story you’ll never forget. No ho hum plot here.

  12. 05/20/2009

    Great review! This is a book I have heard a lot about, and I have always been intrigued by it. I think that your review does justice to the fact that this is a really absorbing read, but not a flawless one. The fact that the writing is a bit sticky might actually push me over the fence and inspire me to try this one, for reasons I really can’t determine. Maybe it is just the curiosity factor.

  13. 05/20/2009

    @ trish: I agree that the book really gets spicy once Eva has given birth to Kevin. You see the strain in her marriage before this (although this could be colored by the fact she’s got the benefit of hindsight), but once Kevin officially enters the picture things really do pick up. Definitely not a ho-hum plot!
     
    @ zibilee: I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book at this point and some people really do enjoy Shriver’s prose stylings, so I do think it’s worth trying it out for yourself to see how you feel. Some people find her unbearable, others think her writing’s divine… I fell somewhere in the middle. She veered on pretentious at times, but it wasn’t the actual words she used that drove me bonkers most of the time!

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