Published by Harper Perennial
Publication date: July 3rd 2006
The point is, I don’t know what exactly I’d foreseen would happen when Kevin was first hoisted to my breast. I hadn’t foreseen anything exactly. I wanted what I could not imagine. I wanted to be transformed; I wanted to be transported. I wanted a door to open and a whole new vista to expand before me that I had never known was out there.
The holidays are not generally the time for this type of thing but the subject of challenging reading is one that comes up in the blogging world. It pertains to books that, for whatever reason, leave you feeling out of your element—uncomfortable. Some people believe the quality of the work and the fact that the mind is being forced to think are good things. Others prefer never reading anything that doesn’t uplift or provide enjoyable escape. By and large throughout my reading life I have been one of those who can and will read difficult and/or unpleasant books if the writing is worth it. Examples of this would be Emma Donoghue’s Room, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea—all of which I admired despite their very difficult premises.
However, like anything in life, there may come a time when we push ourselves too far or cross some inner line we didn’t even know we had. For me this occurred recently, when I read Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, her 2003 award-winning and bestselling novel about a fifteen-year-old who commits mass murder at his school. Shriver writes We Need to Talk About Kevin in the form of letters from Kevin’s mother Eva to her husband Franklin in which she covers the ground from the couple’s early married life to present day. The narrative captures the path of their son’s life with a grinding difficulty that leeches off the page into the reader’s mind. It is an unflinching fictional look at one woman’s life in the aftermath of her son’s decision to become a mass murderer.
…Kevin has introduced me to a real foreign country. I can be sure of that, since the definition of a truly foreign locale is one that fosters a piercing and perpetual yearning to go home.
There is no mercy in how Shriver displays each of the family members. Eva is a successful travel guide writer and the decision to have a child is not one that comes naturally. From the time Kevin is born she is unable to form any sort of attachment to him except a growing resentment and frustration. For his part, Kevin is not any of the things one hopes for in a child. He spends much of his infancy screaming, even when his needs are met. He is slow to meet developmental markers but even more so seems to take a delight in ignoring them; ignoring anything in fact. He still wears diapers in kindergarten forcing his mother to come to the school 4 or 5 times a day to change them. As he gets older he continues to show no interest in school but clearly has a mind bright enough to manipulate virtually everyone in his life. In this way he confounds the standard portrait of a bullied teen who breaks. Shriver could go even further and make him outlandish in his behavior—a demon– but Kevin is simply disaffected and to the doting eyes of his father, misunderstood.
I can’t unread We Need to Talk About Kevin and yet, it’s imprinted on me. I feel as if I need to find a bunch of children’s picture books to read to regain my equanimity. This novel mentally and emotionally hurt. Shriver batters hard at the doors of two protected rooms in the human psyche: maternal love and unalloyed evil. And to do so by making the combination one of a mother who freely admits she does not like her own child and a son whose diffident maliciousness grows as he does means there is no safe place in the novel. Well written? Yes. Brutally intelligent? Absolutely. Did I need to read it? No.
Shriver puts together a potent novel that confounds most expectations and beliefs about school killers. This is intense reading yet profound for what it tells us about the only question anyone wants answered when these horrible things happen: Why? There is no answer. There never will be.
How do you feel about novels with difficult subject matter? Do you read them or prefer to stay away?
tanya (52 books or bust) says
I started reading this book within weeks of having my daughter, and i just couldn’t do it. I’ve often considered giving it another try, but based on what you’ve said, I may not be ready. I like reading difficult novels, but there are some that I just can’t do. Things regarding children are one of them.
Shannon @ River City Reading says
I don’t know what it means about me, but you totally made me want to read this. I guess I’m a sucker for books that make me squirm. Great, great review.
I’ve read this twice. Once when it came out and once last year for my book club. It was no less invoving or disturbing the second time. Like you, it hasn’t left me. Yet I think it’s a great book and would recommend people read it.
Jennine G. says
I will usually read difficult topics. Sometimes it depends on timing though. For example, with this Kevin book, I saw a few movie previews before I’d even known it was a book, and they sufficiently creeped me out to not want to see the movie or read the book. I read Jaycee Duggard’s A Stolen Life and almost didn’t finish because my daughter was the same age when I was reading as Jaycee was when she was kidnapped. But I can read things usually, it’s the visuals of movies that will hit me every time.
I also had a very difficult time reading this book, but I did think it was a powerful book. I had a slightly different take on the mom’s feelings. I didn’t feel as if she hated her son, but rather she knew he was capable of true evil and it terrified her. She was desperately trying to get help, but no one would take her concerns seriously.
I agree with you and guess I didn’t convey it properly in my review. I think she was confused by the conflicting feelings he created in her and yes, she was alone in trying to get help.
Leah @ Books Speak Volumes says
Oomph. I’ve had a copy of this book on my shelf for a few years, but I haven’t gotten up the courage to read it. And now I’m a little bit more scared of it than ever?
TJ @ MyBookStrings says
I usually don’t shy away from difficult subject matter. But this is one book I don’t think I can bring myself to read, mostly because of the two points you make: I wouldn’t be able to unread it, and I would probably need a bunch of feel-good books to cheer me up afterwards.
Kate @ booksaremyfavouriteandbest says
I read this book when it was first released (10 years ago??). I still think about it regularly – like you, it’s imprinted.
Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf says
I tend to like books that make me squirm but since C was born, there are certain topics that I avoid – temporarily, as in, “this can wait until she’s older so I don’t completely torment myself.” This one sounds brutal.
Monika, I would not even hesitate- NO NO. With a sweet little girl, you don’t need anything in your head like this book.