We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Hardcover, 400 pages
Published March 25th 2003 by Counterpoint LLC

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the rare ones where I simultaneously couldn’t wait to finish it and didn’t want it to be over. I don’t remember the last time I read a book that was written so well; the eloquence and power of Shriver’s prose are astonishing, and the story itself is equally well crafted and poignant. It’s a very challenging read, but a worthwhile one.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is in the form of unanswered letters from Eva to her estranged husband. She documents her life to him over the course of a year in an effort to come to terms with all that has happened since “Thursday”–the day her son commits mass murder at his school. Initially I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get into this style. However, it made the book all the more startling, real, and  honest. In fact, it’s one of the most honest and frank books that I’ve ever read.

It’s hard to capture the sentiment, and at times it’s uncomfortable to read because of how deeply personal each correspondence appears. It feels like you’re reading a journal each time, but you never lose sense of the fact that you’re enveloped in a powerful story. That to me is a testament to Shriver’s ability as a writer.

In particular, Eva’s views of motherhood stood out to me. She was reluctant to conceive (to say the least). She talks in depth about her fears of losing her body, her time, and even her husband. When the baby Kevin is born, these feelings do not subside. Kevin rejects her physically and in an emotional sense as well.

Eva’s depiction of motherhood stands in stark opposition to the mainstream concepts of motherhood–that women are radiant when they are pregnant, that they feel a deep connection like no other when they hold the baby for the first time, that they live to watch their children grow, that they have a beautiful family. Her deepest feelings about motherhood are of reluctance, resentment, fear, anger, and disgust, feelings that the tries to mask, and that ultimately drive a wedge between her and her husband.

Shriver’s exploration of motherhood is refreshing and real. You get a sense that finally, you can relate to someone without seeming cold. A lot of people who reviewed this book referred to it as a feminist classic, or an underground feminist hit. Such reviews make sense especially considering how she challenges classic views of motherhood.

There were also times in this book when I felt physically ill. Weirdly, I love that in a book. I like when a book is powerful and so shocking that it makes me feel weird about reading it. As I said, Eva is coming to terms with the murder Kevin committed. In doing so, she explores the events that lead up to it, starting a few years before his conception, right up to his incarceration and  trial.

The thing about Kevin is that he is evil incarnate right from his birth. Each of Kevin’s isolated incidents suffuse the book with an undertone of maleficence, horror, and rage. That uncomfortable feeling of what will he do next? never subsides. In that sense, we can relate to Eva as she documents her own growing discomfort and fear of her son.

When I first picked up We Need to Talk About Kevin, I thought of it as a book about a kid who commits murder. Then I realized it was a book about motherhood, a book about grief, a book about evil, and a book about love.

The concept is ambitious, but unlike other authors who may have big ideas and lack the talent to put these ideas to paper, Lionel Shriver succeeds. She tackles a huge subject with startling honesty, intelligence, and humor. I just can’t say enough good things about this book. Do yourself a favour and check it out!