9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, shocking, disturbing masterpiece
Having heard people rave about this book for years, I finally got round to reading it, and I can now see why barely ten years after first publication it is already being described as a 'classic'. It is brilliantly written, deeply disturbing and powerful, and the sort of book you will be thinking about for weeks after finishing, if not longer. I have read other books by...
Published 18 months ago by BookWorm
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too long, lots of patience needed to finish it.
I bought this book on the back of all the hype and the movie. As other readers have said, its a hard read. Even if like me you enjoy literary novels and actively seek them out as I do. For about 200+ pages, Eva, the self absorbed narrator tells us her every thought and feeling, after a while we are almost pleading with her to narrate the story of the evil Kevin and his...
Published on 28 Oct. 2011 by mental_nomad
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, shocking, disturbing masterpiece,
This review is from: We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail Classics) (Paperback)
Having heard people rave about this book for years, I finally got round to reading it, and I can now see why barely ten years after first publication it is already being described as a 'classic'. It is brilliantly written, deeply disturbing and powerful, and the sort of book you will be thinking about for weeks after finishing, if not longer. I have read other books by Shriver and found her style off-putting, but I barely noticed it here. True, she never uses a one-syllable word when a six-syllable one will do, but you're soon too swept up in the story to analyse the technicalities and it actually works well in context here. It is written as a series of letters from a woman, Eva, to her estranged husband, discussing the 'Kevin' of the title - their teenage son who committed mass murder in a 'school shooting' incident. The actual shooting is not discussed in detail until right at the end, although we know from the start that that is where the story is going. Most of the book is about Kevin, his impact on the family and Eva in particular, from before his conception right up to the present, where he languishes in prison. It is a very unsettling story of a mother at war with her son, narrated with great openness and bitterness.
Eva is not a likeable character, but she is fascinating and well drawn. I was entirely convinced by her throughout the book, and did have sympathy and empathy for her even though she was not one of those characters I deeply loved and cared for. It goes to show it is possible to write an effective first person novel even if the narrator is not hugely appealing to the reader. Likewise, the other principal characters - her well-meaning husband, her passive daughter, and of course the sinister Kevin himself, are pitch perfect. Throughout the story, the reader is left wondering whether Kevin was 'born evil', or if his mother's immediate antipathy to him and lack of parenting skills made him that way, or if a combination of the two came into play. Certainly the two are a toxic combination - a woman without a maternal bone in her body who makes a reluctant and resentful mother, paired with a strange, difficult baby who grows into a stranger, more difficult child. There does seem to be some evidence that there is something odd about Kevin from a young age, that other people can pick up on - but Eva's reliability as a narrator can be called into question. I often oscillated between pitying Eva being stuck with such a terrible child who seemed born bad, and wondering if Kevin was really just misunderstood and affected by his mother's suspicion and dislike of him.
In Kevin, Shriver creates an extremely interesting character. There is something inherently frightening about him in the way he is depicted, from his lopsided sneer to his strange habit of wearing clothes several sizes too small for him. When Eva describes how other children give Kevin a wide berth, as though afraid of him, I fully sympathise - I feel exactly that way just from a few lines on a page. For a story that focusses mainly on ordinary-ish domestic life for much of its near 500 pages, it is highly compelling. I struggled to put it down, simply from the quality of the writing rather than any morbid curiosity about the crime itself. I was pulled entirely into the mostly-silent battle of wills between Kevin and Eva, and unsure of who to root for.
There is no doubt this is one of the most shocking, disturbing and emotionally strong novels I have ever read. The ending left me reeling. I didn't see the final revelation coming, right up until I read the words on the page, and again this is testament to Shriver's skills and the fact I was so caught up in the tale. I am not infrequently moved to tears by a book, but rarely is mouth literally hanging open in shock. It's not for the faint hearted - not because of any overt gore or graphicness, but because the raw emotional impact it has is so high. Prospective parents might do well to wait before reading this - it presents such a nightmare vision of parenthood it's almost enough to make you think twice. But it is far too exceptional a book not to read - it should be compulsory for anyone who appreciates good books.
82 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Description of Clinical Psychopathy in a Child,
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Schriver is frequently slated for writing a book about motherhood when she is childless. In slating Schriver and in condemning Eva (Kevin's mother) reviewers overlook the fact that Kevin scores highly on the Cleckley checklist used to identify clinical psychopathy and Eva also alludes to all 3 of the classic triad of childhood indicators of psychopathy. She's done her homework in this respect. Kevin evades diagnosis (there is a great unwillingness to diagnose psychopathy in children) and the family are left to flounder with a child whose behaviour cannot be modified with either reward or punishment.
As a mother, Eva blames herself for not bonding with a son who is incapable of bonding or, indeed, of forming normal relationships. She does her best to understand and cope with his aberrant behaviour, but faced with her husband's refusal to acknowlege the problem and his inability to see through Kevin's play-acting, she is out-manoeuvred by her own son. Through it all she loves her son as best she can, but his inability to respond in a normal fashion stymies her attempts to mitigate his behavioural and deep psychological problems.
It takes a while to get into the book, but as the story progresses, it becomes hard to put it down. The real reason for Eva's estrangement from husband and daughter is a twist I didn't see coming until a few pages from it. The final scene, however, seems out of place.
100 of 107 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping story,
This book is very well written. Contrary to other reviews of this book, I think it is a strength in the novel that Eva does not always inspire empathy in the reader. Eva is a terrifically well rounded, believable and flawed character. The book is in the form of letters to her husband trying to rationalise the tragic killings performed by her son. I think it is in trying to rationalise why Kevin committed such atrocities that Eva questions her role as a mother... is it because she didn't really want a baby, because she couldn't bond with Kevin after he was born, because she wanted a career or was Kevin just born inherently evil?
This book is gripping from beginning to end, thought provoking, funny, scary and sad... well worth a read.
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars powerful, haunting, disturbing - a must-read,
This novel was thrust into my hands by an independent bookseller whose judgement I trust, who said they had all been blown away by it. Actually, I didn't need much persuading because I remember reading Shriver's earlier work, published when Faber had more courage and less accountants, and thinking it terrific esp about Africa.
But this is something else...like Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work, it's about the dark side of motherhood, something most mums experience from time to time but rarely read about. Only this is much, much darker because in addtion to the usual worries career women have about loss of freedom when having a child, Eva's is a Columbine-style killer. The novel is told in a series of letters to her ex-husband, and despite its ferociously dark subject is horribly funny and honest. (The comedy isn't just about reproduction but about politics because Eva is Democratic and her husband, horrors, Republican.)She gets pregnant because she is, basically, bored and too happy - a lousy reason but one I think many people secretly have. Needless to say the birth is a nightmare (without anaesthetic - how dumb can you get??)and Eva probably gets post-natal depression, pretending everything is fine when it is patently not. But the deeper question the novel asks is whether evil is born or made. Kevin has a complete lack of affect, and Eva's husband, besotted, fails to notice this, seeing only "the boy" not the individual. The story darkens and darkens, producing a wholly gut-wrenching twist or two even when you know its outcome.
There are several faults in the narration, not least in its pacing - we get long chapters about Kevin as baby and toddler then jump forwards to his teens. Eva is a snob, and Kevin partly the monster she has created, yet Shriver's gift is that she makes you care about them in the end. A strong contender to win the Orange Prize, in my opinion, though as a work of literature it isn't a patch on Jane Gardam's Old Filth, also shortlisted.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too long, lots of patience needed to finish it.,
I bought this book on the back of all the hype and the movie. As other readers have said, its a hard read. Even if like me you enjoy literary novels and actively seek them out as I do. For about 200+ pages, Eva, the self absorbed narrator tells us her every thought and feeling, after a while we are almost pleading with her to narrate the story of the evil Kevin and his unlikely exploits.
I think this reluctance to relate the events in the story is the books biggest flaw, so much of Eva's ramberling does nothing but dull the senses.
For fear of sounding harsh, the story has an unusual and riveting subject matter, the characters are interesting if perplexing and it does all gel to give the image of an American family, who have everything but have lost control of their lives.
An interesting but demanding read.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars compelling but flawed,
At one level, I found this a compeling read. Unlike many here, I managed to finish it, and I did not find the style distracting or over detailed. Eva is clever and opinionated and, yes, insufferable and snobby, but in many places (if not in others) she is plausible. The wider story - which is probably best read as a sort of parable - is intimately drawn, the teleogical style hiding a neat twist (which came to me as a relief, since otherwise the format and the style of the letters was not, even in the story's own terms, convincing). Kevin, like Franklin, draws and commands our attention even if, on closer scrutiny, they are too black-and-white, too two dimensional, too much like pantomime characters. Like any other liberal critique of liberalism, the book gets caught up and largely nullified by its own conclusions - if there are any. Shriver seems to me to brilliantly parody a society that must ask WHY and be answered, even when some situations and outcomes have no WHY. The true horror of Kevin is rather like the true horror of Orwell's 1984: Obrien teasing Smith with the discovered journal entry `I understand how, I don't understand why?' to which Obrien remarks, `because there is no why' Yet the impact of this nnialism is lost when, in fact, Shriver can't help put pose the why again at the end, and in the final scene, struggle to offer us an explanation which robs Kevin of much of his fictional dynamism.
In other senses the work has flaws. Though a personal account, Franklin is so ludicrious in places as to beg wider questions as to how or why Eva would have married him in the first place. Even on this side of the pond, a fraction of Kevin's antics would have landed him in some sort of therapy. Although the book is about the banality of evil, it needs to remain plausible within its own structure, its own universe, and in many places it fails to do that. Nonetheless, it is a thoughtful and well written book on a subject that will not go away - so hugely more useful than Vernon God Little.
Finally, I thought it odd that so many people, presumably women, critisied the author for writing about this while not having children of her own: the entire point of creative, imaginative writing is indeed to imagine, and if experience is essentialised over skill, much classic literature would immediately be dismissed - Wuthering Heights for a start!
106 of 116 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating food for thought,
I read this book after a review piqued my interest and I wasn't disappointed. This is a portrait of a family tearing itself apart, because the parents have a diametrically opposite view of what children, parenting and family are all about.
While Franklin holds the idea of family up as a holy grail, the highest purpose that anyone can have, Eva regards family as being something that you do aswell as everything else rather than a calling.
I was very surprised at the harsh judgement Eva received from reviewers - it's true that Eva's view may not be entirely unbiased, and her actions less than perfect, but she is a human being after all. Being a mother does not make you perfect, as Loretta Greenleaf says. As a woman I found that her feelings, particularly her anxieties during pregnancy, seemed to echo my own worst fears: that her body ceases to be her own, that others will regard her as a vessel for the precious offspring rather than a person in her own right. Except in Eva's case these are realities and not just fears.
We can't help our feelings and though Eva's feelings towards her child may not always be the best desirable, she tries hard to fight against them. She doesn't actively mistreat Kevin, except on the one occasion when she loses her temper - something that many parents understandably do.
I was equally surprised by the fact most people seemed uncondemnatory of Franklin, who seemed to me to share equal guilt over the sad state of affairs. His attitude towards his wife both before, during, and immediately after her pregnancy is astounding in its callousness and inflexibility.
His Holy Grail attitude to family seems to rely on his wife totally sublimating herself and her life to the cause of 'the family' while he continues as normal.
He whinges about Eva having to travel for her job and yet once she is the one stuck at home he is happy to whizz off in his truck and leave her behind. Rather than giving her love and support during the pregnancy, he offers finger-wagging censure over her actions. Expecting her to selflessly submit to every prohibiton, he is judgemental rather than understanding. He fails to appreciate the sacrifices she has made but doesn't expect to have to make any sacrifices of his own.
For instance, what would've been wrong with him staying at home to look after the baby to give his wife a break, if she wasn't coping well? He insists that Kevin needs parental care but when Eva finally becomes ill and has to go into hospital he declines the burden himself, preferring to hire a nanny. It seems he's keen on all this personal parental care as long as it doesn't inconvenience him.
Whilst Eva loves him and accepts him as he is, he is constantly wanting her to change herself to fit into his idealised vision of a wife and mother, and is petulant when she does not. Having married an independant, free-spirited career woman, he seems to imagine that she will automatically morph into a housekeeper cum earthmother once she has had his child.
He also constantly undermines Eva's authority over Kevin by refusing to discipline him or to allow her to do so - any parent will tell you that this is a very bad idea. Whether or not her suppositions about Kevin's motivations are correct, there is no doubt that he is often an extremely difficult child, something which Franklin makes worse by indulging him. If Eva refuses to take reponsibility for her own antipathy towards Kevin - Franklin refuses to take responsibility for Kevin himself. Parenting isn't just about fun and games, sometimes there are unpleasant duties that must be faced for the child's own sake. Allowing a child to grow up as a disagreeble and antisocial brat doesn't do them any favours.
Whether Kevin is indeed a monster from birth or whether he is made the way he is by his upbringing is something that could be debated well into the night, but somehow it seems irrelevant to me. Both his parents are presented as imperfect, flawed but human, struggling to do the right thing as they see it. What more could they do for him?
We all have choices in life. In the same way that some abused children become abusers and some become loving parents, it hardly seems right to lay blame for Kevin's actions at his parents door.
That's not to say I didn't feel sympathy for Kevin. The book left me feeling emotionally exhausted, but the ending is also a hopeful one.
75 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A complex , frightening and ambiguous creation,
By A Customer
I won't retell the story; it is well known by now.
I have read it twice and think it is one of the most astonishing modern novels I have read. I want all my friends to read it so we can discuss it.
On first reading I thought it powerful and affecting. What makes a good-enough parent? There but for the grace of God etc. I also thought it had its faults; the opposition between Eva and her husband and between Kevin and Celia are a little too schematic.
A second reading revealed greater complexities. We only have Eva's perspective and Eva is clever and clear-sighted but also vain, selfish and judgemental. She is distinctly childish in her relationship with her husband, looking to him to provide an anchor while she goes off to explore the world (her own mother was emotionally absent). And, ccording to her account, her judgement is, in a twisted sort of way, vindicated. Yes, we now know that Kevin is a monster and she was a bad mother. And seeing things clearly, being smart is very important to Eva.
Once I began to question Eva's view, I saw clues scattered through the book that, far from being born a monster, Kevin was a child largely formed by his mother's antipathy towards him that started before he was even born. The account of the apathetic and joyless toddler is deeply sad. Why did she not seek help? When he is ill, she recognises that Kevin's indifference requires huge effort to maintain so why does she think he needed to do it? Did she think that no psychiatrist or psychologist was clever enough to teach her anything? She frequently criticises Kevin for things that are frankly minor - eating before going to a restaurant, for example, which would matter less if she were ever positive. On occasion, Kevin makes tentative efforts to engage with her but is usually greeted with a self-justifying lecture. He tells her she is harsh and he is right. His English teacher asks why he is so full of anger.
A major theme of the book is responsibility and Eva makes much of her sense of guilt. Yet, Eva does not really take responsibility for a relationship between two unequal parties (something else she fails to recognise) that went wrong before it even began. She just accepts its hopeless nature because to do otherwise would require a far more difficult kind of self-examination than the one in which she actually engages.
A rare book to engage such strong feelings and moral examination, beautifully written and crafted.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not convinced...,
This review is from: We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail Classics) (Paperback)
I can't make my mind up about Kevin...
On the one hand, I stayed up reading this book until nearly 3am on a night when I had work the next day. It wasn't that I was enjoying it, or that I needed to know what happened (it tells you on the back cover), but it was more like I needed to sweat out a fever. I knew I wouldn't rest properly until I'd finished it, so I might as well get it over with.
So it ended up being a page turner... does that make it a good book? I'm not sure.
As some other reviewers have commented, none of the characters are particularly likeable. Eva is egotistical, selfish and self-absorbed, Franklin is weak and two-dimensional, Celia is similarly undeveloped as a character, and Kevin could be interesting, but his psychology isn't really explored, because it's all about Eva. As a character, Eva is someone who quite plainly should not have had children, and if she were a real person, she probably wouldn't. Her relationship with her husband is unconvincing; it's difficult to see what bonds them together, and the author doesn't do a very good job of trying to persuade the reader. As such, it's hard to see why their relationship is so close and so loving that Eva cannot bear to leave him even when he defends their son's behaviour, particularly towards their daughter.
It's also difficult to believe that in a real-life situation, a couple would let their son behave the way he does without getting him seen by a psychologist. I've worked with children who have been sent to therapy for a lot less... And again, who would buy their violent and disturbed teenage son a crossbow for Christmas? There are so many things about this novel which just do not work.
Upon reading the author's commentary, it seems completely obvious that the author has no children herself, as her portrayal of parenthood is wholly unconvincing. What she lacks in relevant emotional experience, she attempts to make up for with unnecessarily verbose language, which only serves to further alienate the protagonist from the reader. Maybe that was the point... I don't think so though.
Credit where it's due - it was gripping towards the end, although I felt the description of the killings themselves was a little too gratuitous.
I've read far better books...
144 of 158 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books I've read,
I saw this book on BBC1's Page Turners and so decided to buy it. This novel is absolutely brilliant, I cannot recommend it enough.
The story is narrated by Eva, in letter form, as she writes to her estranged husband. Eva's son, Kevin, is in a juvenile detention centre, as at the age of 15yrs he went on a killing spree at his high school. He killed 7 fellow students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker. Through Eva's letters, the reader is taken through Kevin and her story, going right back into their past, even before Kevin was born. As Eva spills her heart out onto the paper, you are struck by how she is debating the point of just how to blame, if at all, she is for Kevin's actions.
The exploration of the past, especially Eva's relationship with her husband, brings up many areas of life and truth that are often not spoken about. This, I think, is why this novel is so good; the book is not just about Kevin's terrible crime. The dynamics of Eva and Frianklin's relationship are also explored, both as a young couple and as a family once Kevin is born.
This novel really does stay with you long after you have finished the last page. The ideas, suggestions and debates it raises are complex and intriguing, something to really get your teeth into.
This is a great book, one of the best I have read, and that really is saying something.
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We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver