We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003): The novel’s back-cover blurb makes no secret of the horror shown only at its climax — a 1999 New York school shooting perpetrated by 15-year-old Kevin, the son of successful tourbook writer Eva Khatchadourian and advertising location scout Franklin Plaskett. There’s nothing to spoiler in the bare facts. Nearly two years later, Eva struggles to make sense of her intensely problematic relationship with her now-imprisoned son in a series of letters to her “estranged husband” (so the blurb also tells us).
If it matters to the reader, Lionel Shriver is a woman — she changed her first name in her late teens, as she hated her given name. The school shooting in the novel takes place 11 days before Columbine, and this does get repeatedly mentioned in the novel, as do a number of other real-life school shootings from the 1990’s.
Anyway, it’s the details of this detail-oriented novel that shouldn’t be spoiled: Eva’s lacerating and self-lacerating evaluations of herself and others drive the book. Is she a reliable narrator? Was Kevin born bad, made bad, or resulted from a combination of the two? Well, that’s the novel, isn’t it?
I note that some reviewers have referred to this novel as a “thriller,” though there’s nothing thrilling about it: I found it difficult to put down, but not because I was having a wild romp. You’re stuck inside Eva’s head for the entire novel, and that’s going to be trying for a lot of readers. She isn’t instantly sympathetic. I’m not entirely sure that she’s even finally sympathetic, a judgement I’d extend to the two other main characters of the novel, her husband Franklin Plaskett and the eponymous Kevin.
Plaskett needs desperately to believe in the possibility of the American Dream’s happy nuclear family. This desire plays out in the novel as an escalating series of what seem to be willfully ignorant (or deludedly optimistic) evaluations of Kevin’s escalatingly awful actions as a child and as a teenager. But Eva’s also evaluating how much these evaluations are ‘real’ and how much they’re feigned as part of a desperate need to believe in normalcy. But Eva’s also the only window into the text we’ve got. So we return to reliability.
Kevin himself is a marvelous creation, a Bad Seed who seems fully realized without at any point being explained. Is his growing darkness a matter of biology, upbringing, society, or all three? Is Eva’s belief that there’s something more recognizably and sympathetically ‘human’ beneath his facade of apathetic cynicism, a belief based on only a couple of incidents from Kevin’s entire life, ‘real’ or just wishful thinking? But Eva doesn’t indulge in wishful thinking in her narrative. Or doesn’t appear to. Much. So we return to the evaluations the reader must make.
If Shriver hadn’t already been an established mainstream novelist when she delivered this novel, I’d imagine it could only have been marketed as horror. Some reviewers seem to believe that the novel is ‘useful’ as part of a national (American) conversation about school shooters and what creates them. I don’t think so, really, except as a warning against moral and psychological reductionism, and a warning to tread carefully when attempting to assess blame. This is real horror: unnerving, nonexploitative, harrowing, anti-cathartic for the most part, built painstakingly through the accumulation of telling, closely observed and minutely portrayed detail. Highly recommended.