We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel by Lionel Shriver takes a deep and intimate look in to the psyche of a deeply troubled woman after her teenage son goes on a killing rampage at his suburban high school. The book toys with questions there are no answers to. Are people born bad or are they made that way? The “bad mother” is often portrayed in literature and film as a woman who is not maternal. The woman through whom this story is told (Eva) is writing letters to her estranged husband after the massacre. The whole book is told from her point of view in letter form. Eva is not a maternal woman. She loves travel and even makes a career of it through travel guides that ultimately turns into a very profitable company. She doesn’t want children and she loves her “selfish” life of wine drinking, late nights and hopping on a plane to a foreign land for months on a whim. Somewhere along the way, because Eva’s husband Franklin wants a child , she comes to a decision that it would be a good idea to have a baby. Eva despises being pregnant and when her baby is first born and laid on her breast for the first time, she does not feel an attachment to her child. As her son grows older it becomes apparent that there is something wrong with him. He is cruel, lacks any sort of empathy and experiences no real joy or pleasure in his life. The reader is left wondering, did her baby Kevin become detached from the world as a response to his detached mother or was he born a “bad seed?” Is it a mix of both? Although the book doesn’t seem to clearly answer the question, it gives the reader a lot to think about.
The other interesting feeling this book evokes in some readers (based on reviews I read) is the contempt for Eva. Because she does not want children she is labeled (and sometimes labels herself) as selfish. Why are women who don’t want children demonized? Is it fair to call a woman selfish just because she doesn’t want a baby? There is a stigma to the childless woman and there are a lot of unfair and negative assumptions made about her. Although at times, Eva can be a character that is easy to feel disgust with, there are also moments where you really feel for her. Raising Kevin is not a walk in the park.
Not only does the book take a look at the great hardships that sometimes arise when raising a child who is extraordinarily difficult, it also takes a look at the anatomy of a marriage from the romantic phase to a more settled place and finally when a child is introduced to the relationship. The dynamics between the couple are very interesting as they move from phase to phase. At one stage in their lives they are a perfect match but when real challenges present themselves, they lose connection with each other.
The book is fiction and at times it feels very sensationalized. However, it is a real page turner and if you are interested in human psychology, especially within a context of family and relationships then this is a great read that gives you some good food for thought.
**This was also made into a film starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and will be in theatres this December.