Tuesday, 19 May 2015

We Need To Talk About Kevin • BOOK REVIEW

If you were wondering what my blog title was inspired by - ta dah!

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a psychological thriller written by Lionel Shriver, published in 2003 and winner of the Orange Prize in 2005. In 2011 the novel was created into a major feature film, directed by Lynee Ramsay, and given (unfairly) a 7.5 on IMDb. The male protagonist Kevin was played by one of my personal favourite actors of all time, Ezra Miller, and Eva played by the incredible Tilda Swinton.

The basic premise is as follows:
 The novel documents the life of mother Eva Khatchadourian retrospectively examining the previous 15 years of her life; falling in love with her husband, the upbringing of her first-born Kevin, and the gruesome events that led to her son committing high school mass murder...

The story is structured as a series of letters written by Eva to her husband, and the narration pivots between recalling past events (examining the stages of Kevin's development/marital problems) and revealing Eva's life in the present (the world's response to the tragedy/ her struggle to continue life alone/visiting her 15 year old son in prison).

Firstly, this novel is not a commentary on the american schooling systems/gun controls/ anything to do with american politics or society, in case anyone jumps to this conclusion. The story is simply posing the never-ending psychological debate: Nature, or Nurture? Are people inherently evil? This concept is timeless - I feel like this book will never go out of date, the story is not limited to the understanding of one generation. Every single person at some point has contemplated; why am I this way? Do I reflect by biology or socialization? ANYWAY, let's get into it.

Before children, Eva Khatchadourian's life revolves around running the successful business A Wing And A Prayer - a travel guide company. Her life is absorbed with journeying around the world, immersing herself in different cultures and lives before reluctantly returning home to New York City, where she indulges in an affluent lifestyle with her husband. When the opportunity arises of starting a family, her husband is eager while Eva is entirely doubtful. After a period of scolding herself for being selfish and not wanting a child, she falls pregnant and gives birth to her first-born Kevin. From the outset, it is apparent Kevin is a troubled child: violent, manipulative, worryingly apathetic but above all disconcertingly intelligent. Eva soon comes to realise her mistake.

The narration is entirely first person perspective, which is extremely effective in the recalling of the tragic events because it poses the question; are Eva's recollections reality? Throughout the entirety of the novel the reader is required to sustain the awareness that these events are recalled through Eva-tinted glasses: her story is the only one we have, so how do we know it's true? The novel examines child rearing from the perspective of a woman who resents her child for stealing away her life, married to a husband who was so desperate for a son the love is suffocating.

There are three primary ways to examine this novel:

1. People are inherently evil. Kevin K was born with evil running through his veins and no matter what parenting he was subjected to he was always going to commit mass murder.
2. People reflect their upbringing. Morality is based upon solid parental attachments. Eva is a terrible, selfish mother. She never gave her son the love he deserved, and therefore he grew up completely alone. His father tried to smother him in love and ended up suffocating him. In the correct environment, Kevin could have grown up a healthy, normal child.
3. Nothing is that simple.

What is so incredible about this novel is that no one knows the answer. Eva doesn't know the answer, nor does Kevin, nor does Lional Shriver nor do I, and the speculation is so absorbing. I recall finishing the book and sitting still for about an hour thinking- what the hell does all this mean?

I have never read a book that has been so absorbing. Not only could I not put it down, but when I wasn't reading my mind was so absorbed with trying to find out the answer. Not only is Shriver a beautiful, eloquent and incredible writer, but it was written in such a way that the gruesome events seemed so cold. Every horrible event seemed to slowly dawn on you in the most hollowing way possible. Shriver might as well have carved out my insides. The most terrifying thing of all is everything is inevitable. The chapters set in the present tense provide the illusion that the reader is observing this horrible train crash that they know cannot be prevented. The book left me emotionally drained and lost but also invigorated and more excited about a story than I had been in a long time.

My Personal Perspective:

The book is prefaced with the quotation;

 I think this perfectly summaries the novel's commentary on parent-child relationships.
I'm going to briefly comment on the Nature vs Nurture argument because in my opinion, this is what the novel is all about. Are people innately Evil?

Of the two of them, I blame Eva, though I'm aware that is a strong statement. Throughout the entirety of the novel you must sustain the awareness that THIS IS FROM EVA'S PERSPECTIVE. Is what she is seeing reality? Is she seeing a baby boy scowl at his mother fresh out of the womb? Or is that what she expected to see? Is Kevin really this nasty, hateful, spiteful child that exists to torture his mother?

I don't think so. Eva's vision is tinted red; resentment is so overpowering that it shadows every move her son makes  - perhaps her child was troubled, but not evil, no. Eva was so insistent that he was set out to destroy her she could never just relax and be truthful around him, the one thing that Kevin really wanted. In fact, the only circumstance in which Kevin displayed any genuine emotion was when Eva scolded him; because it was the truth. Children can see through bullshit!
In addition, the father was no better. In his eyes, Kevin could do no wrong and therefore almost pinned him against the mother, meaning Eva looked like the bad guy. Not that I have any experience in doing so, but parenthood is a two way street, if you gang up against each other the child is stuck in the middle.
At the end of the novel, it's apparent that beneath Eva's desperation for her husband's affection and resentment of her stolen life is an exhausted, unconditional love that I think every parent holds for their child. I am a firm believer of Nuture over Nature, and if Eva had been a better mother, Kevin may not have turned into the train wreck he had.
I think it is interesting also, how in the Afterword Shriver contemplated her natural caution against having children and has made a decision not to have any. In many ways, I believe this novel is not just a story but a long, long daydream, of what it would be like if she had, and it all went terribly wrong.

I'm aware this review is a bit long winded, but I just have so much to say on the topic! I'm obsessed with the topic of attachments and what makes people who there are, and coupled with my taste for morbidity this is one of my favourite books of all time. Definitely up there will Stephen King.

I give this book a 10/10. I'm hard to please with books as well, but I just couldn't find any faults.


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