Newest Review: ... growing into a difficult child and young adult who, as a teenager, commits a terrible crime. This, however, is definitely not a thril... more
What Would You Do About Kevin?
We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
Member Name: Puggers
We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
Advantages: A challenging, enduring read, skillfully composed
Disadvantages: Not all characters are entirely convincing, mixed pacing
I say difficult; in a sense, it should be easy to create a novel based around the events with which WNTTAK deals, so inherently full of emotion and shock value as it is. To relate the story well, however - to take the chilling, powerful premise and turn it into a story with such depth and resonance as that here - that is something entirely more challenging, and it is something the author achieves here to some effect.
The titular Kevin is Kevin Khatchadourian, son of Eva and Franklin, a fairly well-off, ostensibly successful couple living in New York. As a teenager, Kevin went to school and carried out an atrocity that appalled America and divided his family. The book opens with Kevin in prison for his horrific actions, and is narrated via a series of letters from Eva to her absent husband. In these, Kevin's mother relates the story of her son's life, trying to find some kind of consolation, reason or perhaps even guilt in the years that prefaced the events that are hauntingly, simply referred to as "Thursday".
This is an interesting narrative structure, and one that works here - especially given Shriver's choice of focus for the plot. Though there are some big, big themes here - gun control, youth crime and how we do and should punish the perpetrators; maybe even the death sentence - the author tends not to linger on these points, leaving them as hanging remnants of opinions voicd by minor characters within the novel. Instead, we are chiefly concerned with the issue of nature versus nuture, and Eva's fine-toothed comb analysis of her child's growing-up. As such, the retrospective structure of the book is extremely effective - the immediate shock and ramifications of Thursday have died down, and Eva is left to pick over the remnants of a life that, on the face of it, should have gone very differently.
Of course, wealth is not intrinsically linked to how one's children develop - but there is certainly an assumption that it helps, that those most fortunate children are those that want for little. Kevin did not go without in any sense as a child, as far as we can see (though it is through Eva's eyes we are looking). She considers herself to have been a loving parent, although this love, she feels, was rejected by Kevin from the outset.
We move back and forth in time, looking at the present day and selected moments from the family's past, and the same themes emerge repeatedly. While Eva is deeply concerned by Kevin's behaviour, her husband, Franklin is almost dismissive, eager to write off his son's actions as something he'll grow out of, or never intended in the first place. We are taken through Kevin's many wrongdoings as he grew up, and do so with what he went on to do present in our minds - knowing what we do, we look for traces of the present in the past, as our narrator Eva does, and ask whether what happened was preventable, or whether it was simply a product of some kind of inherent evil in the child's character. Can a child be evil, or can he only learn it?
Generally, Shriver's characters are well-written; they feel realistic, they have minds, thought-processes and personalities that seem to extend beyond simply that which we are shown. However, they don't feel perfectly written - Franklin is a somewhat one-dimensional character, and doesn't seem to change much throughout the years the book covers. Although stubborness is a perfectly valid character trait to portray, he seems to go beyond stubborn to being quite incapable of feeling anything outside a certain spectrum. Our narrator, too, has her moments that don't ring quite right. Though the analysis she goes through is a key element of the book, at times she seems to go a bit too far, linger too long and go to unnecessarily complex lengths in her trips into the past. Perhaps this is more a pacing issue than a character one - Eva's accounts are for the most part insightful and absorbing, but every now and then, they just seem to drag a bit. Sections that could probably be moved on from on occasion stretch on far more than they need to.
I've often come across Kevin being criticised as being a rather one-dimensional character, too. In this case, I don't feel the criticism is valid. Our narrator's voice is, after all, only her opinions and memories - we shouldn't assume they are an entirely accurate portrayal of what has gone before. She may be clouded by more recent events, and may choose to see Kevin as a more black-and-white character than he was, perhaps in part to serve agendas she may now have.
All in all, this is an extremely powerful book - it genuinely does make you think, encouraging you to put yourself in the character's places. It is credit to Shriver's writing that we feel compelled to do this. I think the way in which she has written Eva's role is a piece of good judgement - although she is broadly speaking a "good" person, there are enough faults in her that we are forced to question her actions and choices as much as we do Kevin's. No-one is entirely in the right here, and this makes the novel an intensely more affecting read.
Summary: Disturbing, challenging and provocative.