Thursday, November 6, 2008

Talk About a Nightmare

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I remember saying to E. once when I was expecting our first child that I did not know which would be more painful - to be the mother of a child who got picked on and bullied by their peers, or to be the mother of a child who would pick on and bully another. This book is the uber-asking of that question, and it comes down on the side of how awful it must be to have a child that seems to have no empathy or conscience.

Kevin's mother, Eva, is coping with guilt because she was never sure if she even wanted kids, and then when her son is born she is unable to connect with him. To be fair, she makes some effort, but Kevin never responds to her. Eventually she begins to shut herself off from him, resigned to the fact that they will never have a relationship. After Kevin commits a horrible crime right before his sixteenth birthday, she has to face her own role in what happened - she is blamed by the press and by the parents of his victims for his actions, and much of the time she blames herself.

The underlying question throughout the story is "Is Kevin just a bad seed from the get go or does his mother's distance turn him into a murderous psychopath?" The question is never resolved, and shouldn't be. I found myself reading the story with a growing sense of horror. I love my kids more than I can say, and I wanted them desperately, but I think most (if not all) mothers have that secret fear before they bear or receive their children that they will not be able to bond with them, that the connection about which so many mothers rhapsodize will not develop for them. That's got to be the ultimate mom nightmare, and here is Eva living it. I tended to sympathize with Eva through most of the story, although she is selfish and at times difficult to like. Kevin struck me as manipulative and malicious and dangerous early on (but the way Shriver structures the book, we know what he has done from the beginning, so he does not start with a blank slate).

Another major dynamic through the story is the relationship between Eva and her husband Franklin, and the way Kevin plays them against each other. All two parent households know how quickly children learn that game, but few carry it out to the extent that Kevin does and with such devastating results. One of the many tragedies of the story is the wedge that Kevin becomes between his parents. You want to shake Franklin because he is such a clueless fool, but then your heart aches for him because he is trying so hard to build a family that conforms to his image of a "happy" one.

This is a compelling story that holds out a faint hope for some redemption in the last couple of pages. It's hard to read because there is so much bitterness and sorrow for all the characters, but especially Eva. She deals honestly with the little discussed problem of loving a child who is difficult to even like. Characters like Kevin give us a renewed appreciation for the unconditional love of God, who loves even those whom we in all our humanity cannot.

Reverent Reader


At 11/7/08, 2:30 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of those books I'm not sure I could read along with Halima Bashir's book about rape in Sudan. Can't read it.

At 11/7/08, 5:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel the same way, Jan. Dennis read this book and was impressed with the writing but I just haven't been able to psych myself up for it.



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