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January 9, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

We Need to Talk About Kevin – creepy children, mean mothers


I recently finished reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and while this is in part a review, it’s also a ‘you’re not alone’ nod to any mother who’s ever considered murdering her child to preserve what’s good about humanity. I stumbled onto this book before the movie got hype at Cannes. Instead of paying attention to festivals (I’m no good at following the cool people), I read this article by Shriver on publishers insisting on designing pansy book covers for all female authors, regardless of story content. I liked it so much that I felt drawn to her book, and the idea of a nasty book written by a woman. Fascination with the book does not rest with me alone, so I think its fortunate that this Orange-prize winning work about a sociopath and his mother was not rendered laughable and condemned to the chick-lit genre by a flowers-and-hearts cover design.

Written as a series of letters from a wife to her husband, Franklin Plaskett, Eva Khatchadourian reminisces about her life with her husband before and after the birth of her son, Kevin, including the nightmare scenario she finds herself in fifteen years later. With a timeline that runs between November 2000 and April 2001, the reader is placed in the uncomfortable position of knowing that Eva’s situation will quickly become part of a growing trend of women who have, through no apparent fault of their own, nurtured children who go on to do terrible things.

But what strikes me most about We Need to Talk About Kevin is the fact that Shriver focuses more on the mother’s perspective of her life as a whole, rather than just parts which relate to her son. It’s a woman’s novel because Eva, the mother of a very difficult child, cannot compartmentalise her relationships within her family just because her son burdened them all with infamy. Shriver tacitly and deliberately links everyone so thoroughly that the reader must work through a fog of familial connections, each informing the other, before we arrive at the truth that underlines the entire story.

Because in the end, a mother always has to love her son, right? Part of the thrill of Shriver’s story is that this remains brutally unclear. She travels the difficult path, heading where few people have dared go before. The division is stark. Before children, Eva enjoyed her life as a successful businesswoman and loving wife. After children, Eva is definitively unhappy, and she doesn’t pull her punches on the topic. The primary cause of Eva’s discontent becomes pretty damn obvious and is further complicated by a myriad of other unexpected problems.

However the line of culpability between nature or nurture begins to blur when it becomes clear that while Eva is a dutiful mother, she is not a natural one. She doesn’t have a very strong maternal instinct, while her husband, Franklin, melts at the sight of his horrible offspring, regardless of the more worrying behaviours of his son. Eva has the terrible burden of seeing her son through almost dispassionate eyes, while Franklin escapes reality and wallows in the comfortable serenity of mild self-delusion. This kind of juxtaposition only more starkly highlights reality; in many respects, a man can get away with a lack of enthusiasm for children, and is applauded when he takes to parenting. A woman, however, cannot dislike motherhood, not at least without risking serious social repercussions.

But perhaps the biggest taboo breaker in this book is the portrayal of children as unlovable. Gasp! I hear you say. A child is never inherently bad, surely? But Shriver shows you that a child can, in their childish way, be incredibly unlovable. Kevin is, in almost every aspect bar for a select few moments, so unbearably awful that one is driven to place their hands around his throat and strangle him as gleefully as one might strangle that damned Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. The genius of Shriver’s writing, much like in Brontë’s, is that Shriver is capable of drawing pertinent and affecting moments of empathy from her most difficult characters. At key moments, the reader is drawn into the hellish nature of Kevin’s existence, into his very psyche, through the select observations of his mother and her remembrance of her son’s words or actions. Like Heathcliff, Kevin is not a one-dimensional bad boy. He is the most frightening of all children, almost totally unreachable and unreadable. He is, essentially, a mother’s worst nightmare and a moral dilemma so frightful that this book will, honest to goodness, make every woman reading it stop and reconsider their exact motivations for having a child.

Because what is it, really, to have a baby? You’re creating another human, and for most people, this results in a uniformly decent person. They have morals that seem so natural they’re almost there from birth, when in reality, they’re probably gleaned from environment more than anything. But what if a child is impervious to such influence? What do you do when nothing can be done, and you risk becoming a bad mother?

It’s a question Eva faces on a daily basis, but one I hope I will never have to.

Further reading:

Shriver has a go at today’s book designers, who can’t seem to draw.

A review of the film based on the book We Need to Talk About Kevin.

An interesting review of the book itself in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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2 Comments

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  1. Kate / Oct 10 2012 4:04 AM

    I think that Eva never bonded with her son, from as early as her pregnance. Her continually negative feelings about her pregnancy and eventually her baby led kevin down the killer path. Even when she tried to be a better mother, her heart was not in it and Kevin felt/knew that…. If babies can learn music in the womb, they can certainly learn and feel stress and negativity, and it definitley shapes them. It has been proven that when a pregnant woman is continually under stress it creates a fight or flight instinct in the child..

    • Siobhan Argent / Oct 10 2012 8:57 AM

      *SPOILER ALERT* Interesting idea. But it also seems likely that foetuses respond differently to a mother; people know others who grew up with distant mothers, and those people often grow up determined that they are not the same way with their own children. Kevin is an anomaly; he seems to have gone further down the negative path. You could even say that he bonded with her through this shared negativity – after all, hers is the only picture he keeps when he’s in jail.

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