Review: We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-571240dd70cb4This is a book I’ve put off reading for a long time. In fact, I saw the movie with Tilda Swinton before I was brave enough to read the book. That’s just the way my mind works, because, for whatever reason, I’m always convinced that the book is going to be better.

And I was right.

We need to talk about Kevin is a psychological thriller written by Lionel Shriver. It’s told from the form of letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her husband, Franklin. In these letters, we learn pretty quickly the trauma that this woman is coping with. Her son, Kevin, shot and killed with a crossbow several of his peers and teachers at his school.

The conversational style makes the whole book an incredible read. Obviously, this is Eva Khatchadourian speaking to a man who was there for many of the incidents she describes. So for what the narrative lacks in exposition, it makes up for in subtle clues and hints as Eva explains these situations from her perspective. Making the whole thing bias and one-sided, which Eva herself is happy to admit as she frequently questions her own motivations and memories.

Lionel Shriver does an amazing job creating these incredibly flawed people. Eva is emotionally cold and distant. And as we’re in her head, we’re privy to all the doubts, anger and disappointments mothers naturally feel but likely never say out loud. Eva is career driven and really only has Kevin to please her husband, and Kevin’s immediate rejection of her and her towards her son echoes throughout the book.

Kevin, who so easily could have become a Damien like devil child from The Omen has moments of weakness throughout the book. And due to them being so small and so few, they’re all the more powerful when they happen.

And Franklin… I’m sure Lionel Shriver will understand when I say I truly hate the bastard of a husband, Franklin. I probably haven’t hated a fictional character more. Manipulative, overbearing, Leave-it-to-Beaver loving, controlling, blind and stupid – I hated him, but at the same time, I understood him. He’s a character I imagine everyone will have a strong feeling for, whether that’s sympathy – as throughout the book he’s entirely manipulated by Kevin, or anger because he just should have known better.

I know for a lot of people, this book won’t be their cup of tea and I can understand why. One person I know in particular wouldn’t go near the book for anything because of Kevin. And I can understand that. ‘Evil children’ is just one of those tropes that can sharply divide people, and unlike a book like the Midwich Cuckoos, Kevin from We need to talk about Kevin feels horrifyingly real.

There’s a cognitive dissonance in play when we think of evil children. No child is inherently bad, which is why authors get so much mileage out of convincing us they could be. Even from seven weeks old, Eva subscribes to him an evil intent. He screams the house down when she’s alone with him, refusing to feed. Then when Franklin comes home, he’s good as gold. Throughout the book, you’re confronted with the question – is Kevin inherently evil, or are we seeing this through the eyes of a woman who practically rejected him from birth?

Of course, Kevin goes on to do evil, malicious things to everyone around him. But in the end, you get a sense that he was doing it almost solely to – if not please – then at least impress his mother. During an interview about his school shooting, he parrots back a speech about responsibility his mother gave him. He tells his mother that he didn’t kill her because he needs his audience.

It’s a fascinating if deeply uneasy book.

I’m giving this four stars, but with a caveat. Usually, my four-star ratings mean I loved this book and I will definitely read it again. I did love this book – it made me feel, it made me think and it blew me away with its style. But I won’t be reading it again.

Probably won’t be having children anytime soon either…

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