Monday, October 17, 2011

You have to wonder about the mother

At the beginning of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, we know that Eva Khatchadourian's teenage son Kevin has committed a mass murder at his school. The novel is composed of Eva's letters to her absent husband, Franklin. She compares the details of her life before and after that dreadful day, and tries to make sense of what happened.

You might be picturing Eva as a loving mom, tearfully trying to figure out how her beautiful baby boy became a killer. That's not a good description of this book. For one thing, Eva isn’t always particularly sympathetic. An intellectual, chilly East Coast liberal, her acute but judgmental perceptions can be a bit hard to take.

For instance, early in the novel she encounters the mother of one of the teenage girls her son killed. The woman looks overweight and frumpy, and Eva writes,

"She was once so neurotically svelte, sharply cornered, and glossy as if commercially gift wrapped. Though it may be more romantic to picture the bereaved as gaunt, I imagine you can grieve as efficiently with chocolates as with tap water. Besides, there are women who keep themselves sleek and smartly turned out less to please a spouse than to keep up with a daughter, and, thanks to us, she lacks that incentive these days."

Ouch. Throughout this book Eva turns that razor-blade insight on herself, exposing her own selfishness, jealousy, and stubbornness with the same level of cruelty. Her question, specifically, is: did Kevin turn out to be a monster because of her many failures as a mother? Or did she fail as a mother because he was a monster?

We Need to Talk About Kevin presents several uncomfortable scenarios. A child killing other children; a woman who is deeply conflicted about her role as a mother; a society that, in the face of tragedy, does not come together but turns upon itself. It's a suspenseful but disturbing and even somewhat upsetting book. I recommend it if you’re in the mood for something thought-provoking but horrifying.

We Need to Talk About Kevin has also been made into a critically-acclaimed movie, starring the divine Tilda Swinton as Eva. Here's the trailer:

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