A Review of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver

I am a little apprehensive as to how I should begin this review: there are so many things to talk about.

First of all, I consider this to be truly a great work of literature, not simply “fiction”.  As M.T. Vasudevan Nair said in his book, Kaathikante Kala (“The Art of the Storyteller”): “The real story is on the unwritten pages”; that is, it is the gaps, the pauses and the undercurrents between the characters (which the reader is forced to complete or imagine) which is the mark of great literature.  This is one hundred percent correct as far as We Need To Talk About Kevin is concerned.  The novel makes us think, long after we finish it.

It is not a fast read: even though Lionel Shriver writes beautiful prose, she writes about ugly things.  Reading it is almost like self-torture under hypnotism; you don’t want to do it, but once you are into it, there’s no way to stop.

The story is told in epistolary form, through the letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to her absent husband Franklin Plaskett.  Eva is the mother of the infamous Kevin Khatchadourian, the architecht of the Gladstone High School massacre.  Eva’s letters are divided into two parts. One talks of the current time, her travails as the universally shunned mother of the infamous teen: the bereaved parents of Kevin’s late classmates have slapped a civil suit on her, which she is fighting in her typically disinterested manner, and visiting her son regularly in the correctional facility where he is incarcerated.  The other part of the letters traces Kevin from his conception up to the fateful Thursday.

As the story unfolds, we get a picture of Eva and Franklin. She, spirited, independent, liberal, proud of her Armenian heritage and a little contemptuous of her adoptive country: he, more conventional and boringly American.  Eva as the propreitor of the highly successful travel guidebook franchise A Wing and A Prayer never wanted a child.  But she succumbs to Franklin’s entreaties and conceives Kevin.  And from the moment he sets foot on earth, Eva’s life becomes a horror story.

Kevin, through Eva’s eyes, is portrayed as so evil that we shudder; as he grows up, his evil nature also expands.  To Eva’s frustration, Franklin remains oblivious to his son’s true nature, trying to recreate some fictitious “American Dream” in his backyard.  Eva and Kevin face off many times during the sixteen years leading to the apotheosis of his career on that Thursday afternoon, with Eva always the loser.

Kevin is an odd child from the start.  He shuns breast milk, does not talk (even though he has learnt how to) until he is three years old, and refuses to be toilet trained.  He is apathetic to everything, seeming alive only when he manages to goad Eva into a rage.  With Franklin, he plays the part of the All-American Child, but mockingly, as Eva suspects.

Kevin’s crimes are inferred rather than seen: apart from one incident during childhood when he sprays red ink all over Eva’s darling maps tacked to the walls of her study, his mother does not see a single instance of his misbehaviour (if we leave aside that masturbation scene with an open bathroom door).  But she is oddly sure that in almost all of the “incidents” he has been in (and they are many, including one in which his sister is maimed for life), he is implicated: but she is also convinced that her son is so clever as to hide his true nature from all except a perceptive few.

So the novel slowly moves towards its destructive climax, picking up speed, and when it occurs, it is much more than we expect.  It is a one-way ride into darkness.

Lionel Shriver says in the afterword that people who read the novel fall into two camps: those who see Kevin as truly evil and Eva as victimised, and those who see him as a victim of circumstances, mainly an indifferent mother.  It is easy to see why.  Ms.Shriver has managed to frame the narrative from the POV of Eva Khatchadourian in such a way that the whole veracity of the tale depends on whether we trust her or not.  The reader is forced to make a judgement of character and stick by it.  In short, how we see Eva and Kevin will depend a lot on who we are.

For such a dark novel, more frightening than any horror story, the novel ends on such a sweetly sentimental note that there was suddenly a lump in my throat.  Suddenly I remembered that for all his monstrous faults, Kevin is still only a child.

This book will stay with you for a long time after you walk away from it.  More importantly, it will set you thinking, if you are a parent… which is not a bad thing.

For you see, as parents, we do need to talk about Kevin.  We have been silent too long.

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