I read this book, We need to talk about Kevin, in 2009 whilst in hospital, in a haze of opiate pain control. Necessarily, I read it again a few months later when my brain was clearer. It remains in my top twenty and the issues remain live.
Eva Katchadourian is a wealthy second generation Armenian, with a successful international travel guide company, Franklin her solid, full blooded husband and a Manhattan loft to match – life is good. Eva has opinions on just about everything modern America has to offer and she articulates her love hate relationship with her adopted country with sermons on everything from republicanism and the American dream to SUVs, politics, obesity, and gun crime. The unravelling of Eva’s world unfolds through letters she writes to Franklin examining their life together and her relationship with their son Kevin. Eva struggles with Kevin from conception and from the time he enters the world, full of rage, their relationship is one of mutual rejection, suspicion and mistrust. A series of cruelties and misdeeds bearing Kevin’s hallmark seem visible only to Eva, and while Franklin refuses to acknowledge his son’s malevolence, Eva becomes increasingly marginalised in the family dynamic. A second child Ceilia, reassures Eva that she is not bereft of maternal instinct, but the clingy dependent girl, the polar opposite of Kevin, simply serves to emphasise the growing imbalance – with tragic consequence. This book might be good enough as a straightforward examination of a woman who simply does not like let alone love her son, or even the concept of motherhood. It is however far more layered, examining Eva’s culpability, when Kevin commits the ultimate teenage atrocity, and when the full extent of her loss is revealed in a skilful denouement.
Yes some points are laboured and the book could probably lose 100 pages or so. However, this is a book about intellect and the abuse, neglect and misuse of high intelligence; about the grace inherent in banal and futile violence; about the rejection of traditionally assigned roles and ultimately about parental instinct – which sadly for Eva turns out to be devastatingly accurate. It takes a lot of well crafted writing to present the arguments in the book and still achieve the filmic quality and rounded characterisation that Shriver pulls off. For those who have been critical of its range and find some of it “verbose”, guess what? Books are about the use of language and occasionally it’s possible to expand your vocabulary when a writer such as Shriver, selects exactly the right word with exactly the right nuance, rather than fall back on the commonplace. Eva and Kevin are two sides of the same coin – they are ‘onto each other’, they understand each other. The book is forensic in its excoriating examination of their relationship and Eva’s role in her own epic tragedy and eventual, tenuous reconciliation with the son who stole her life.