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?