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Book Review: We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Eva Katchadourian never wanted a baby. She is the powerhouse career woman who has it all – a healthy and happy marriage, a career that she loves and lots of money. Eva has the perfect life and at one point she even says, “Well, maybe we’re too happy.” Perhaps in saying it out loud, she jinxes her own happiness. Eva talks about having kids in vague conversations with her husband, Franklin. The one element lacking in their lives is the absence of their own children. Franklin badly wants kids. Eva merely sees it as “another turn of the page” in their already-happy life. For Eva, having children would provide her the answer to an existential crisis, forged by their perfect life leading towards nowhere.

Yet, as readers, we know that Eva’s life does not end well. The novel does not take on a linear plot, but follows Eva’s train of thoughts which builds towards the inevitable Thursday that changed Eva’s life forever. It starts with Eva’s present life, a shabbier, hollower shadow of her life from the past. A result of the massacre of seven people by her son, Kevin. The novel is made up of letters that Eva is writing to Franklin, who seems to be absent. The letters move between the past and the present with such ease and smooth transition that it is hard to notice when the present has folded into the past. There is a sharp contrast between Eva’s life before Kevin, and the life after.

However, as Eva has noted, “And though the natural impulse of yarn spinners is to begin at the beginning, I will resist it. I have to go further back. So many stories are determined before they start.” Eva reminisces the happy days with Franklin – pre-Kevin – and wonders at their decision to have children. Through Eva’s letters, Kevin morphed into a monster the moment he was born. Eva recounts her experience of motherhood with disgust and hatred aimed at a child who seemingly knows exactly how to torture his mother. She also recounts incidents where Kevin shows signs of psychopathic tendencies, with a particular incident where Kevin watches a violent show on TV without flinching. Eva attributes this not to Kevin’s insensitivity towards violence on TV but as a lack of empathy, painting him as a natural psychopath.

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver creates characters that are difficult to like and even downright annoying. Eva is self-obsessed, narcissistic and even acknowledges it herself; Kevin is a psychopathic killer; and even loving Franklin and sweet Celia brings out the killer in me. Yet despite of Kevin’s remorseless actions or Eva’s selfishness, Shriver writes in such a way that I can’t help but sympathise with these unsympathetic characters. Towards the end, I find myself snugly tucked into Eva’s shoes, asking the same questions she did as she looks into Kevin’s eyes. And Kevin makes me wonder if he did love his mother after all. Maybe all that he did was not out of a heartless attempt at fun but a little boy’s cry for attention from his mother.

What did you like and/or dislike about the book?

Shriver is a talented and incredibly skilled writer, no doubt. Kevin is the only book of hers that I’ve read but it remains one of my favourite books and most memorable for me. The book started out really slow at first and it took me a while to pick up the book again (and this was after reading reviews that claim it gets a lot better in the second half) but once I got to the exciting bits, it was a huge rollercoaster ride where I just fell into the dark hole that is Eva and Kevin’s twisted mother-son relationship. It’s a book that definitely deserves a second reading, with knowledge of how it ends.

Did the book live up to your expectations?

Rather than live up to, it deviated away from my expectations. Upon reading the synopsis, I had expected a novel that explores the context of a mass shooting from the perspective of the shooter’s mother, like Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes. What I got was something totally different and unexpected, but unique. Instead of taking on the romanticised, sentimental route of a mother struggling to come to terms with her son’s actions, Shriver expands on her own fear of having children and turns her nightmares into a novel. I’m a huge fan of stories that explore the sentimentalities of life, but I wouldn’t mind a darker read every once in a while.

If you have seen the movie, what did you think of the two? Did one perform better than the other? Discuss.

The film was relatively unknown since it was made by an indie filmmaker but it was very aptly cast with Tilda Swinton as Eva and Ezra Miller as Kevin, actors who brings the characters to life on the screen. The film tells the story with powerful visual cues, using the colour red as a motif throughout and pushes the story forward.

The film, however, was quite disappointing to me. The storytelling fell flat and didn’t carry enough weight as the novel did. Franklin was even more annoying, and John C. Reilly was just incredibly out of place with Tilda Swinton as his wife. The lack chemistry between them just made it worse. The performance of the casts were top-notch (I mean, it’s Tilda Swinton) but I think the plot just didn’t do the story justice. Perhaps the film was just trying to be too much like the book rather than stay as its own medium.

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