on 30 July 2007
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.
on 19 June 2007
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.
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.
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!
on 8 September 2005
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.
on 14 October 2005
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.
on 14 May 2006
Over-analytical, complacent and accepting, honest and faultering, We Need To Talk About Kevin is always a gripping read. Although difficult to get into at first due to its style of language, this book is well worth the effort and delivers a satisfying story with no set answers - just like real life.
It is a story narrated by Eva, the mother of Kevin who she suspects from an early age has a cruel streak. When Kevin is at high school, he kills seven of his fellow students and two staff just before turning 16.
The story is told through letters to her husband Franklin, recalling before Kevin was born and gradually leading through his life to the day it all happened. Franklin never replies - this is something which you are constantly aware of and you find yourself generating several theories as to where he is, why he has no answer etc.
For Eva it was a difficult decision to make when her and Franklin
decided to have a baby. It had never been one of her goals as a career focused woman although it interested her as 'a new adventure'. Once pregnant she felt alienated from her husband and this continued once Kevin was born. A central theme throughout is how Eva never felt a connection to her son from conception to birth and throughout his early years. Kevin had a terrible temper and was always acting out but Franklin never saw it this way or understands how Eva feelsand they grow apart
throughout the years.
This is where the book is so interesting - you never know whether to fully believe her account of the events or not. She is painfully honest in her letters and this makes you feel close to her and empathise with her view or her son. The real question behind the whole book is how does someone become evil? Is it nature or nurture? Eva fears that the way she interpreted Kevin's behaviour as a baby led to an extreme distance between them throughout his life. It is debatable to what extent the book answers this as we only have one side of the story - either way, it is fascinating to read this account and work out where you do and do not agree with the thing's Eva says.
Again, another topical issue is raised here - who is to blame for such acts of hatred/evil? Is it the parents, is it peer pressure, is it just some one off nutcase or is it the way kids are today? After all, the Colombine and various other similar massacres were attributed by right wingers to the media and rock music like Marylin Manson.
The great thing, but also an irritating thing, is that we only have the one account and this isn't by the person who carried out a similar act. The book is clever at telling us details bit by bit by bit and by accounting Eva's visits to Kevin in prison, but you always want a final answer, some words from Kevin himself as to the most important question of all - WHY? The absence of a definitive answer perhaps is crucial to the whole point of the book - to ask yourself what YOU think and to show there is no black and white, just varying shades of grey, depending on where you stand. It is here that the book is most human, in its honesty and confused reasoning.
It is a book that has stayed with me from the moment I picked it up and I consider rewarding.
on 21 August 2006
As a relatively new father of an eight month old boy I picked this book up with some trepidation given its subject matter. Some reviewers have commented on Shriver's prose style and suggested that the first half of the book is too heavy going. Personally I found the writing excellent - lucid and articulate. I was slower through the first half than the second but then again I find that that applies to most books. Like others I whistled through the last third at rate of knots as Shriver finally takes the reader through the bloody events of 'Thursday'.
Throughout the novel however I had a nagging sense of disquiet. Ultimately I just didn't believe in it. I just didn't buy the tale that Shriver was telling. I didn't believe in the father-son relationship, I didn't believe the hopelessly naive father, the hopelessly trusting daughter. More critically, I really didn't believe in the evil son. The idea that Kevin popped out as a ready-made Damien-esue bundle of misanthropy just didn't wash and some of the calculating behaviour attributed to him as a baby and small child are frankly ludicrous. Interestingly, I was convinced by the selfish hard-nosed mother but the fact that the author is not a mother herself is interesting having read the book.
The denouement is fairly predictable, and the apparent volte-face in the last couple of pages reeks of a hollywood ending I'm afraid. But having said all that, it's definitely worth a read a raised some interesting questions for this new parent. Not sure I'm going to get my wife to read it though!
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.
on 13 March 2006
This skilfully constructed novel about high-school killings and parenthood raises a huge range of interesting questions. To what extent are parents responsible for the way their children turn out? Where does evil come from? Why do people commit massacres? Cleverly, Lionel Shriver does not answer these questions, but provides plenty of discussion material, for example by making both parents of the evil-doing Kevin deeply (and sometimes maddeningly) flawed. A gripping, harrowing read.
Downside: don't read this if you're upset by graphic violence.
For another take on some of these issues, try Doris Lessing's excellent - and equally harrowing - "The Fifth Child".