We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, is a powerful and highly emotional novel; that is, it evoked in me a deep emotional response without ever straying into gimmicky sentimentality. The narrator might even be described as cold.
It's the story of a boy who as a teenager goes on a killing spree at his school (when America was still reeling from Columbine) as relayed by his mother in a series of letters to the absent (and not responding) father.
I'd had no interest in reading this book, assuming it'd be thinly veiling a handful of social, political, moral discussions I could do without — something like "the effects of modern culture on America's youth and how it contributes to the rise in violence and, gawd, wasn't Columbine horrible, we must raise our children right so it never happens again."
What I found instead was a very intimate and "honest" portrayal of Eva, a mother grappling, for years, with motherhood, in all its emotional and logistical aspects, who is judged for her son's actions.
I put "honest" in quotation marks because I don't know how to gauge that quality. It's written in such a way to make it feel honest, and I relate to it very closely — I assume many mothers would, but maybe I'm a freak, and by some freak coincidence Shriver has tapped into my psyche, maybe shared by a few others. These feelings, and discussion of them, are still pretty taboo; how can we know if they're normal? Many readers find Eva unlikeable — heartless and selfish; I do like her — she's introspective and human, that bit of being human that gets pushed aside, that's ignored or denied, or sometimes just forgotten, when you become, and aspire to embody all it means to be, a mother.
(I would note also that the narrator is emotionally "honest," but not necessarily factually reliable.)
Lionel Shriver on Kevin:
I think Kevin has attracted an audience because my narrator, Eva, allows herself to say all those things that mothers are not supposed to say. She experiences pregnancy as an invasion. When her newborn son is first set on her breast, she is not overwhelmed with unconditional love; to her own horror, she feels nothing. She imputes to her perpetually screaming infant a devious intention to divide and conquer her marriage. Eva finds caring for a toddler dull, and is less than entranced by drilling the unnervingly affectless, obstreperous boy with the ABC song. Worst of all, Eva detects in Kevin a malign streak that moves her to dislike him. Her misgivings seem well founded when, at the age of 15, he murders nine people at his high school. Whether Kevin was innately twisted or was mangled by his mother's coldness is a question with which the novel struggles, but which it ultimately fails to answer. That verdict is the reader's job.
We also witness a relationship change when a child comes into the picture and new dynamics and power struggles emerge.
And that pesky nature–nurture question:
How we came to conceive of children as passive objects upon which adults act is beyond me. From my earliest years, I remember being a conscious agent. I knew when I was not supposed to do something, and sometimes I did it anyway.
Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child had a lasting impression on me, as it expressed many of my own fears regarding motherhood — what if a child is born evil, or bad, or "off" some way; what control and responsibility do parents have over the condition and its outcome? I skimmed through it again after reading Kevin. The sons are different kinds of "monsters," Lessing's novella is much sparer, almost as if to examine these issues in the abstract, but the similarity of themes in the two books is striking.
Both books also consider the state of pregnancy. While the effects of diet, for example, are scientifically proven, and effects of say, music, are surmised, there remains something mysterious about the effect of a mother's thoughts and the general mood that surrounds her. Are they transmitted to a fetus in utero too? I think about that mystical state often, and about how lucky I am, that good vibes and hopes are more responsible for my wondrous offspring than any single action I took (or didn't take).
(I read a novel years ago in which the child simply didn't want out into the nasty world — the mother, a musician I think, stayed pregnant for years. Does that ring any bells with anyone? At least I think it was a book; it could've been a coworker's dream or something.)
No, Shriver does not give us any answers, and it's an uncomfortable read, but curiously, I think all her characters find redemption.