Sunday, June 27, 2010

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I borrowed this book from my younger sister while I was visiting my family in Brisbane after having attended a conference at the University of Queensland. I was in semi-holiday mode so I thought I’d pick something from my sister’s extensive bookcase that looked like a nice easy read, but not dumbed-down. When my eyes rested on ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ something registered in my brain as though I had heard the title before. I saw that it had won an award (The Orange Prize for Fiction) and thought maybe that’s where I had heard it. Anyway, as I picked it off the shelf I felt the same feeling I feel whenever I start a new novel that I know nothing about—a mixture of apprehension, hope and excitement. I can now say that I made an excellent choice because the story was extremely though-provoking and has stayed with me for days.

Eva is a 50-something woman writing letters to her husband. She writes to him about their son, Kevin, who committed mass-murder at his high school at the age of 15, and is now in prison. Her letters take the reader on a journey starting at Eva’s life before she had Kevin—a time she was absorbed in her career and her (very happy) relationship with her husband. She was happily child-free and she intrigues the reader by discussing her ambivalence to start a family and relating how she decided ultimately to have a child to ‘turn a page’ in her life. No longer content with being ‘so happy’, she wanted something new.

We learn how Eva felt as though Kevin shunned her as a mother from the day he was born. As the mother of a mass-murderer she has come under scrutiny for her mothering skills, or lack thereof by the mass media, the legal system, the parents of those killed and society at large. As she takes the reader on a thoughtful chronological journey up to the day Kevin committed the crime, we are forced to consider the nature/nurture debate: are we who we are because we are born that way? Or do we become who we are? Eva presents Kevin as a case that contributes to the belief that nature dictates who we become. At the same time, she can’t help but feel some responsibility for the way he turned out by perhaps not loving her son enough. Are these feelings of Eva’s a product of a society such as America’s where people seek to place blame? Are these feelings particularly encouraged by a society that places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the mother when a child turns out ‘wrong’?

Unlike many violent and criminal youth, Kevin was raised in a middle-upper class household where there was no violence and where the parents were still together and still in love. He was not deprived materially or emotionally. The fundamental question that Eva and most of the community continued to ask since the crime is ‘why?’ That is the question explored in the book as Eva mulls over what she did right and wrong—how did she contribute to produce a child that would commit a horrendous crime? The question is thoroughly investigated but, predictably there is no answer. Eva ends by asking another question: what kind of love, if any, can a mother give her son after he has done something as heinous as Kevin did? And how will she be regarded by society by the choice she makes?

I have mentioned a lot of questions, and have given no answers. That is the power of this book. It is, after all, fiction. It doesn’t claim to make any scientific judgements about the nature/nurture debate, but it does provoke thought and this is the art of a good novel.

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