Book Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Posted on Sunday, December 4th, 2011

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Whenever a film is made of a book I cringe a little. I have very seldom seen a film that is as good as, let alone better than, the original book. I have taken to avoiding film adaptations of books, and whenever a new movie in this genre appears I resolutely look away, or in this case, re-read the original source, to refresh my memory of how good it was to begin with.

So it was with Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, which was recently released as a movie and I’m sure the Powers That Be will figure out a way of creating Kevin lunchboxes and other merch. I haven’t seen it, nor will I, but in this case it is also because I didn’t particularly like the book in the first place.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of those books that unites people in discussion, which is the best that can be said of it. It’s a fantastic Book Club choice, for example, because it has such potential for disagreement. In the Book Club then, I am the curmudgeon in the corner who didn’t like it.

To reprise the book, for those who have neither seen the film nor read the book, it is ostensibly a series of letters, a first person narrative by career woman Eva Khatchadourian, mother of Kevin, by then a 15-year-old boy who has shot seven students and two adults at his High School, and who is currently imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for the crime. Eva explores the build up to this point through letters to her now estranged husband, Franklin.

So why didn’t I like it? Quite simply, I didn’t find it emotionally authentic. I found Eva’s voice unconvincing, Kevin an unconvincing disturbed child and Eva’s relationship with Franklin unlikely in the extreme. Franklin himself is little more than an adjunct to the story, and it is impossible to know him at all through Shriver’s portrayal. His behaviour is always inexplicable, and unrealistic. Nothing about him rings true at all, neither his relationship with Kevin, who can do no wrong in his eyes, nor with his other child, towards whom he seems chilly at best. As a periferal character this is bad enough. But when the narrator of the book starts by losing your confidence, the rest of the book is a house of cards waiting to fall down. And for me it did. Card, by tedious card.

As a writer, your primary tasks is to engage the reader, and most good writers do this by using their imagination, if they have no personal knowledge of the subject matter. The greatest literature in history does just this, and can move us to tears of pity. Who could not weep for Hardy’s Tess? Who would remain unmoved by King Lear? And although I am not a Russian living in Saint Petersburg, I could enter fully into the world of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. So, if Shriver could not convince me of Eva’s reason for even being with Franklin, and of even a remote affection for her child, how is one to feel anything other than indifference towards her, as a reader? If I don’t believe in a character, or  find their emotional landscape remotely engaging or compelling, then the writer has failed. For me, a lack of emotional authenticity came through very strongly, and although some might argue that it is the authorial intention, I am not so sure.

I heard a radio interview with Lionel Shriver recently, and whilst I won’t fall into the trap of confusing a reader with her work, I found the interview revealing. Shriver, herself childless, and quite militantly so, sounded as emotionally disconnected as Eva. There was no sense of warmth, and seemingly no understanding of children or mothers in her explanation of the work. She clearly lacks the ability to realize these relationships either as an imaginative writer, or speaker. There are women who are ambivalent about bearing children. Shriver actually writes very well about this, since she is speaking from a position of emotional knowledge, and it shows. If her book had been about this subject alone it would have succeeded better, and contributed something useful – an often unheard and scorned voice would have been heard. Her portrayal of an emotionally conflicted woman is highly insightful. But of course the book is about far more than that.

The subject of High School shootings is a serious and complex one. Kevin bears absolutely no emotional similarities to any of the teenagers involved in shootings over recent years. This sort of inaccuracy and disregard for facts is irritating, and occurs throughout the book. One small example is when Kevin is presented from birth as a child who refused the breast. Eva takes it as symbolic of his rejection of her and an indication of his disposition. In reality breast refusal in babies is always as a result of one of a host of medical problems. There is no other authentic reason for a baby to refuse the breast, and certainly not an emotional one. 
This could have been a brilliant book, touching as it does on subjects such as wide-ranging as childbearing, relationships, the nature of good and evil, free will and the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. But for me it became too much like a tick list of Book Club discussion points, with none of these issue tackled in enough depth, or with enough intelligence. As one fellow reader pointed out, accurately, there was no debate about nature/nurture to be had, since none of the ‘nurture’ offered to Kevin was accepted by him. Shriver’s presentation of a situation in which nothing could be done about Kevin by anyone became a fatalistic one. For that reader Kevin becomes an allegory for intransigent fundamentalist ideology in a post 9/11 world. Some ‘positions/people are just wrong’, and time should not be spent trying to understand them or help them. Nothing is to be gained by trying to excuse or explain their behavior, nor will you earn their respect by doing so. It is an interesting interpretation, if a depressing conclusion. I certainly share his frustration with the ‘nothing worked’ portrayal of Kevin. Having worked with disturbed children myself, I simply fail to recognize Shriver’s presentation of Kevin at all, and doubt she is speaking from a position of knowledge here either. 
So, I would not, as you may surmise, recommend this book. It’s far too long, self-indulgent, and light weight in all the places where it might have been really interesting. I have no idea why it has garnered so much praise. Perhaps I should go and see the movie after all. It might just be better than the book.

Buy We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Our rating: ★★★☆☆

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Mti edition (December 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062119044
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062119049


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Tagged as 2011, columbine, high school, shooting+ Categorized as By year, 2011, By rating, 3 Stars, By genre, Contemporary
  • Kasia

    Thank you for this review, it was quite refreshing. Tempted by the raving reviews of the film, I bought the book, but felt it contrived from the start and am not sure if I have the willpower to pass the 3-page benchmark… I have a neurotic aversion to self-indulgent, verbose narration and this seems one of the worst cases. Whether to persevere is as yet an open question as the book was a birthday gift and I feel somehow compelled to give it a chance. Thanks again and best wishes

  • Para Juegos

    When I read his comments about it more attractive than the movie

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