Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Book: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Author: Lionel Shriver

Pages: 400

I read it on: My Kindle

I read it: Across a few days

Plot Summary: Eva never really wanted to be a mother - and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. 

Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. 

Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

Thoughts: I should always go with my instincts when it comes to picking up books. We need to talk about Kevin is a book that I have picked up and put back on store shelves no fewer than 25 times (at the very least) since it released, got hyped and won awards in 2005! I have time and again picked it up, held on to it and ditched it last minute for something else. I should have stuck to my guns and not read this book at all. What a waste of time! Anyway, this could pretty much sum up my review of this book, but let me give you the usual 'lists' of likes and dislikes. 

What I Liked: In the spirit of being fair... 

  • The premise- the mother of a school shooter attempting to piece together what went wrong when with her son that led him to become what he is. School shootings are scarily regular and are always, always heartbreaking- all that innocence, all that potential.. just lost, gone. The second anniversary of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre was on December 14, 2014 and so, somewhere this tragic theme lurked around in my subconscious. So, I finally caved in and picked up this book because I thought it may offer an interesting perspective on a topic that is so senseless and awful! 
  • Eva's voice was brutally honest. She does not hold back and is critical of herself, Kevin and her husband Franklin (to whom these letters are addressed). Eva's not wanting to be a mother and, eventually, deciding to try for a baby to make her husband happy was well established. We got to see her internal struggles- between doing what was expected of her (already a wife, now become a mother) and what she wants to do (travel the world, grow her travel book business). Eva was someone I could empathize with and I felt her helplessness as Franklin did not see Kevin's budding sociopath tendencies like Eva did. So, Eva, as a character, was nicely done. 
  • Franklin's unwillingness to see the troublesome behaviour patterns of his son was also nicely done. There is always one naive, blind parent who believes in that age-old blanket explanation for a kid's bad behaviour- he's just a kid! Franklin is simplistic and sees the world in black and white and, to him, a child being manipulative and cruel is just incomprehensible! Even though the contrast between a super-aware parent and the clueless parent is a cliché and oh-so-convenient, but it works well in this case. 
What I Didn't Like: Quick list:

  • The author tries very hard to build the whole 'nature vs. nurture' debate to explain Kevin's actions. However, the author takes a very simplistic cop-out, non-nuanced route of 'Kevin was born evil' as a way of explaining who he is and why he did what he did. Look, there are children who display sociopath-like tendencies and earliest one can diagnose them is when they are older than five. In this book, however, Eva is convinced that Kevin was born bad- that even when he was a baby, he would cry and throw tantrums when he was alone with Eva and be perfectly behaved when Franklin got home. Ergo, Franklin not believing anything negative Eva had to say about Kevin. 
  • Connected to what I have just said above, the narrative of Kevin's actions have been conveniently summed up as a war between Eva and him, with Kevin doing everything he did to either trouble Eva or to get her attention (that's Eva's interpretation, at any rate)! I don't think kids like Kevin who end up shooting their classmates/other kids and teachers have any one, simple, clear-cut motive! The author failed to create a nuanced narrative to explain Kevin and his actions. 
  • There are two big reveals towards the end of the book. One was very obvious (this was about where Franklin was and why letters were being written to him) and the other (Kevin's weapon of choice) was a surprise and not-so-easily guessable. Both the big "mysteries" were rather lame. 
  • Kevin seems more like a cardboard cut-out than a real person. I understand that we are seeing this book from Eva's perspective and she herself does not understand her son, but that notwithstanding, Kevin only seems evil and vile and there is nothing else about him that his mother has even noticed... Eva goes on and on blaming herself for being an unloving mother to Kevin, but seriously?! Could any human being be so clueless that all they can see in their own child is only one aspect of his persona?! Can any kid just be all evil all of the time?! I don't think so! 
Rating: 2/5 
This is a very acclaimed book and, for me, it seems unworthy of that hype. This is a simplistic take on a complex and challenging issue and the book over-simplified it into a 'some are just born evil' narrative. Word to the wise, if you want to read a really well written and supremely chilling book on high school shootings, you are better off reading D.B.C. Pierre's Vernon 'God' Little

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