Book Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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This month the WEN reading group got stuck into the 468 pages of Lionel Shriver’s million-selling novel.

It was my first visit to a book group, and as I marched myself down to the Drayton Court I had no idea what to expect. Clutching my copy of WNTTAK like an entry ticket, I tried to survey the delightful wood-panelled pub purposefully, until I spotted two young women at the bar. There was nothing for it but to accost them with the line, ‘Are you here to talk about Kevin?’ They were, and soon the whole group was off – when it comes to Kevin, there’s plenty to talk about.

The teenager in question has killed nine people in a murder spree at his school, in a manner that Shriver makes clear is far from uncommon in contemporary America. Whilst it goes without saying that this is sickening and ghastly, it also begs the question of why he did it. This is the question that haunts Eva, the boy’s mother, as she sets out to find answers in a series of letters to her estranged husband, Franklin.

The subject matter is grim and none of the characters are the sort of people you would invite round to dinner, but what keeps the story going and this reader frantically turning page after page, is the starkly real depiction of Kevin’s troubled infancy and childhood.

Yes, as the narrative works its way inexorably towards the dreadful events that must be recounted, the reader wants to know what happened, but more than that, like Eva, you want to decide how much she is culpable for the way Kevin turned out.
This question soon had the reading group in hot discussion. It’s a testament to Shriver’s skills of characterisation that we ranged from those who hated Eva, to those who largely blamed the father, to those who thought Kevin was simply evil.

The only thing beyond doubt is that Shriver is a skilled story teller, who portrays, with disquieting accuracy, the agonies of an ambivalent mother trying to relate to her hostile and unresponsive offspring. Should Eva and Franklin have spotted the signs that their son was on a one way ferry to sociopathy, or were they just like any other parents, rightfully trying to cling to a love that blinds?

The authenticity of this description is all the more impressive given that Shriver is not a mother herself. It’s a feel-bad book but I challenge you not to have a strong reaction to it.

That made it the perfect choice to ignite the debate in the Drayton Court. The other reprieves that kept me hooked despite the macabre theme, and arguably over-long series of anecdotes of Kevin’s increasingly ghoulish misdemeanours, were Shriver’s fresh and arresting use of imagery and language. The pinpoint accuracy of her observations of the minutiae of married life is enough to make you sit up.

I’ll be back for more Lionel Shriver and more of the reading group.



Roderic Vincent

April 10th, 2010


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