The novel We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a chilling depiction of the actions of a son and the effects that it has on his mother, however under the surface, the true story depicts the dark side of motherhood. The novel is presented in a series of letters by Eva Katchadourian to her estranged husband Franklin, whom the reader is led to believe is reading these letters, however at the end of the novel it is uncovered that he in fact died ”that Thursday”. In these letters Eva describes the life of Kevin form before he was conceived to the events that led up to Kevin’s shooting spree.
The first letter or chapter is especially effective because it does not disclose what the incident is, the connection of the deaths and Eva is shown through the overlying sense of guilt shown in the language, such as “she lacks incentive these days”.
The focus of many of the earlier letters is on the judgment from other people, and how it appears to make her feel like a “fugitive”. As she is writing these letters, Eva is living alone and without much money and many of the letters are littered with flashbacks of a time when she was successful, happy, married, and childless. There is a very heavy sense of regret throughout the novel, seen in the response to Kevin’s question, “you never wanted to have me, did you?” which was “I thought I did”. This harsh response finally gives closure the Eva, however, because all throughout the novel she had debated whether she really had wanted Kevin.
This makes the reader feel just how much strain Kevin and his actions have put on her life and how his picking and berating finally forced her to snap and no longer be able to stay civil. This outburst of emotion is rare for Eva because the tone of the early parts of the book is almost impassive and out of the body. This contrast is very effective in showing the impossibility of remaining composed in situations such as is.
Eva recalls the decision to have children was not easy. She was thirty-seven at the time and while Franklin was desperate to have children, Eva was wistful at how much the parents changed. They go back and forth until they agree that it will give them “something to talk about” a new challenge in their lives. One-night Eva becomes terribly distraught over not knowing where her husband is and decides that she needs to conceive.
Upon reflection the reader can clearly see that having “something to talk about” is not a justified reason to take the responsibility of another life on them. The lack of emotion involved in this choice is very harrowing for the reader ad could create a sense of foreboding for the kind of child Kevin was going to be.
Eventually, Eva becomes pregnant but as she puts it, she feels “strangely cold”. She is not excited, as often expected, but fearful. This creates an impending sense of fear and makes the reader believe that even before his birth Kevin is full of malice and lacking emotion. This fear is confirmed as throughout the letters depicting Kevin’s childhood he is seen to “shriek with hatred” when he and Eva are left alone together, and even before that Kevin refused to suckle his mother. There are so many clues littered throughout this book to show that Kevin is not a stable child, “only eating the saltiest of foods”, repeating everything his parents said in “mocking nonsense syllables” but the worst of it was what he did to his younger sister Cecilia.
Cecilia is depicted as the polar opposite of Kevin, she is sweet but not too smart and has an unsettling trust in Kevin, which unnerves Eva. The effect of creating an opposite to Kevin highlights the oddness of Kevin’s behaviour and introduces the argument of nature over nurture. What Kevin did to his sister when he was just 14 was a major red flag. To instill a sense of responsibility, Eva and Franklin decide to let Kevin babysit Cecilia. But one afternoon a terrible accident occurs and although Kevin attests, he is blameless, Eva suspects otherwise. Cecilia is rushed to the hospital after pouring Liquid-Plumr down her eye, she survives but loses her eye. As the novel is written in retrospect the reader is unsure if the suspicions were immediate or after a nerve-wracking wait in the hospital her thoughts wandered.
Before this fateful event, Eva thought she had made progress with Kevin as they had an actual conversation about the general ugliness but from a reader’s view, it is seen not as a moment of bonding but the fueling the fire for Kevin’s attack. And this suspicion of Kevin not engaging with the conversation for a positive effect is seen as he eventually cuts her off and tears her down in a cruel tirade, ending with his line: “maybe I’d rather have a big cow of a mother who at least didn’t think she was better than everybody else.”
Meanwhile, school shootings are occurring across the country at what seems like an alarmingly frequent interval but instead of being shocked by what is being done by the shooters; Kevin rolls his eyes at the unoriginality and ineffectiveness of the shooters. This creates a blinding sense of foreboding for the reader as the cruel “accidents” that Kevin always seemed to be involved in were often well planned and meticulously executed.
The penultimate act of Kevin’s cruelty occurs in the first semester of Kevin’s sophomore year when he managed to remove a teacher from her position by fabricating a fictional story of how she sexually harassed him after classes. This was done to purely ruin a life, but clearly ruining a life was not enough he had to end them. This intent and precision are seen when discussing his actions, “My crowd was handpicked”. The casual tone of his language makes it seem very conversational and the subject much lighter than it really was. This makes the reader feel very aware of how there was much more calculation than emotion involved in his decision-making.
Eva describes Kevin’s killing spree in chillingly exact detail as if it is engraved in her mind. Inside the kit, he took to school was a crossbow not the bow and arrow for his independent physical studies course. A few days prior to this Kevin sent a letter typed on school stationary to eight students and one teacher. He stood on the balcony and shot them one by one, the first dead before they hit the ground, and watches as the rest bleed to death. One survives by playing dead under two other students. The survival mirrors how Eva feels because at the end of the novel we see that Cecilia and Franklin were both mowed down that morning by Kevin’s crossbow. This creates a huge sense of isolation for Eva because not only did she lose her husband and daughter, but she lost her son, despite how strained their relationship was.
The novel finishes with an honest conversation between Eva and Kevin as he is nearing his 18th birthday, she asks him why he did it and to that he replies, “I used to think I knew” “but now I’m not so sure”. Kevin then gives Eva a present, a small wooden box he’s crafted but he asks her not to open it, and she realizes that it contains Cecilia’s glass eye; it dawns on her that Kevin is asking her to bury it for him as some kind of apology. In Eva’s final letter she proclaims she has come to a full circle and finally, against all odds, she truly loves her son, and then when Kevin serves his full sentence, she will welcome him home.
I find it hard to see why this book has become so acclaimed. The narrator, and main character, of the story is so unreliable, it is nearly impossible to ascertain what really happened and how the other characters involved really acted or felt. Eva’s portrayals of Kevin and his father in her letters are fraught with contradictions throughout the book, combined with unbelievable descriptions of Kevin’s adult vocabulary and presented actions at the age of 3 and 4 years old and I just couldn’t find hardly anything of use in this book. However, it does heavy-handedly touch on several real… Read more »