Lionel Shriver: Why we should still be talking about 'Kevin'
20th August 2016
Words by Laura La Rosa
Homepage image by John Liot
It’s been over a decade since the award-winning novel We Need To Talk About Kevin seeped steadily out into the world. The manuscript had a slow start, enduring an initial resistance that resulted in 30 rejections from various publishing houses. Eventually, a small agent signed a deal with Shriver, and with next to no marketing budget word of mouth brought this story to life. Author Lionel Shriver has since lost count of how many books she has sold and what followed was a successful movie deal and numerous awards.
Shriver explores some hideous elements of human character in We Need To Talk About Kevin, and while you may not personally identify with such themes, you’re likely to question your fascination with them. Too often I have encouraged my friends and colleagues to read this piece of best selling fiction phenomena, only to have at least half of them shun it, deeming it too disturbing. A minority of my peers though, give me a knowing smirk as they recall a distinct indulgence; those who have read it, that is.
These fellow fans I speak of know all too well the delicious train wreck that it is. They too have devoured its pages, resembling a small child with a forbidden itch – frantically and irresistibly scratching away at its surfaces. It sounds divine, right? It is, but be warned, as this dark and utterly beautiful piece of fiction will ruthlessly wedge itself into your sub-conscious while you wrestle with its topics.
"A minority of my peers give me a knowing smirk as they recall a distinct indulgence; those who have read it, that is. Shriver’s ability to deliver dark and emotionally acute depths of modern day horror is nothing short of genius. These fellow fans I speak of know all too well the delicious train wreck that it is. They too have devoured its pages, resembling a small child with a forbidden itch – frantically and irresistibly scratching away at its surfaces."
We Need To Talk About Kevin is a fictional compilation of intimate letters written by the character ‘Eva’, to her absent husband ‘Franklin’. These letters detail the significant events of their life together, beginning with the period before their first child ‘Kevin’ is born. Eva’s letters to Franklin, so familiar and intimate, pour out of Eva following the months after Kevin has committed mass murder at his high school. Mostly, Eva reflects on her struggle to sacrifice her career for motherhood, and her guilt surrounding her reluctance to bond with Kevin. She frequently questions herself as she explores the implications of her flaws, recalling far more battles than triumphs. Constant throughout this story is Eva’s acute understanding of her son as she takes on the role of observer.
From start to finish, Shriver conveys a level of intuition through Eva that is remarkable beyond words and her ability to deliver dark and emotionally acute depths of modern day horror is nothing short of genius.
Eva’s letters are a tale of parenthood, possible fragments of postnatal depression, and textbook-denial on her husband’s count. Featuring throughout is the unusual mother-son relationship with Kevin, who from the start shows arguably compelling signs of being a sociopath. The story is as beautiful as it is sad, and as you get to know Eva you can’t help but admire her. She is a picture of resilience, and an advocate of great patience on a level Shriver conveys with nothing short of elegance. As horrific as the events in this book are, it is very much about strength and unconditional love, just not in the context we are necessarily accustomed to.
In addition to acknowledging this masterpiece and its success, there are specific reasons I believe we should still be talking about ‘Kevin’. The first being the evident influx of online discussion that too often draws upon conclusions that Shriver simply does not. One of the beautiful – albeit frustrating – factors in this narrative is that the biggest questions remain unanswered. I suspect this inconclusiveness is Shriver’s way of cleverly conveying a moral sub-text that encourages acceptance of the unknown. In one interview Shriver states: “We never really get into Kevin’s head. Ultimately Kevin is unknowable” (Languide, 2012, February 14).
The discussion and debate derived from the book often focuses on blaming either Kevin or Eva; clichés such as ‘maternal ambivalence’ and ‘nature versus nurture’ frequently feature. Why was Kevin so evil? Why did he kill his schoolmates? Was he born that way? Was Eva to blame? Shriver made Kevin and Eva, and therefore could rightfully break them. To date, she has chosen not to, instead she is happy to “sit on the sidelines and watch (critics) fight it out” (Languide, 2012, February 14).
In the spirit of being open-minded, I ask that readers and fellow debaters of the ‘Kevin’ narrative embrace this story’s inconclusiveness. I believe we should take a moment to reflect on Shriver’s undertones. Even in the most tragic of events, there is always a grey area to probe – curiously, but without judgement. We should allow this notion of a parable to be symbolic of that space in society that’s rightfully reserved for anything but opinion. We should always advocate compassion and understanding first, a concept Shriver explores subtly, unbeknown to a good proportion of opinion-givers.
Our world has changed a lot in the last decade. In our digital lives today, we often seek interaction and validation via our device screens. We are subject to, more than ever before, high volumes of online content that often dictate what our lives should look like. The picture of a newborn and parent experiencing ‘pure joy’, historically portrayed in one-dimensional mass media, is now generated, and literally ‘shared’ by our very selves. It’s no longer marketers and advertisers solely projecting this picture on to us. It is, in fact, the everyday consumer driving much of this message.
"The picture of a newborn and parent experiencing ‘pure joy’, historically portrayed in one-dimensional mass media, is now generated, and literally ‘shared’ by our very selves. It’s no longer marketers and advertisers solely projecting this picture on to us. It is, in fact, the everyday consumer driving much of this message."
Most of us are aware, on some level, of the challenges new parents face. We’ve all vaguely thought about the fears and insecurities that peak during early parenthood. Yes, there is immense joy, but what we don’t always share – without some stigma – are the tales of tears, uncertainty, and self-doubt that rears its unwanted head at a time we are encoded to believe should be consumed with overjoy. Arguably ahead of her time, Shriver talks of this in one interview: “I’m very interested in the difference between what life is supposed to be like, and what it’s really like. Kevin, for example, is an exploration of that dissonance. And I think it’s a dissonance that most normal people feel, this is not just something for fictional characters or writers. You’re always dealing with the tension between your expectation and what you have been told of: what adulthood is like, or getting married is like, and then you find out for yourself and it’s very different” (Languide, 2012, February 14).
“I think that not only women, but parents, and prospective parents, were grateful to see parenthood depicted in fiction in a way that took away the rose-coloured glasses – it’s de-romantised” (Languide, 2012, February 14). It’s this very message, quoted by Shriver herself, that makes this book so worthy of conversation. We are not often graced with a fictional novel that not only stays with us for a long time, but also serves a greater purpose.
Shriver does not have any children herself – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed. In one interview, she admitted to loving the debate derived from the book. When questioned about her decision to not have children she answered: “Most of all the book is a contemplation of what about motherhood frightened me. It turns out a great deal about motherhood frightens me”.
Various religious websites and amateur bloggers have been known to publish hostile rants about Shriver which she has described as “grotesque distortions of the book’s underlying theme” (Shriver, 2005). Contrary to the criticism Shriver has endured, she clearly has lot of fans. Long after We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver has gone on to build a successful writing profile that boasts a sustainable narrative in itself and an array of successful novels.
We should indeed keep revisiting the topic of ‘Kevin’; at least until the likes of social media posts take on a more authentic tone. We can only hope that as our world continues to change, parents begin boldly tweeting about the realities of postnatal depression, or the impact the presence of a new being can sometimes have on a relationship. Maybe then we can stop talking about ‘Kevin’. When authors like Lionel Shriver are subject to far less scrutiny and acknowledged for their contribution – perhaps then we can lighten up on the ‘Kevin’ talk. For now, let’s keep this conversation going, even if ‘Kevin’ continues to make some of us feel very uncomfortable.
Languide. (2012, February 14). BBC HardTalk Interview: Lionel Shriver. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5dMMBuWEn0
Shriver. (2005, September 17). No kids please, we’re selfish. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/sep/17/society