Thursday, August 30, 2012
Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Possible Spoilers)
My Review of the Film Adaptation
Eva was a successful businesswoman and author as well as a wife and mother of two children. Now she is estranged from her husband and daughter. Her son Kevin is incarcerated, in the wake of a school shooting, for a series of brutal murders, Eva's world is cold and narrow. Her only real communication with anyone is through letters she writes to her husband, Franklin.
In this epistolary novel, Eva reflects on Kevin's history, starting before conception, leading to his becoming a vicious psychopath. She explores her own culpability in who he became, along with her conflicted relationship with Franklin.
From conception and birth, Eva was unable to bond with Kevin. Ambivalence about motherhood and the changes it would bring to her life, postpartum depression, an unsuccessful attempt to breastfeed, and the exhaustion that goes with comes with a baby who cries incessantly -- these are all normal experiences. Things many women have gone through before becoming basically happy moms who are madly in love with their children. But for Eva, this becomes a slippery slope, and things only become worse.
During her retelling of Kevin's earliest years, I felt trapped in Eva's mind, only able to see things from her perspective, and I suspected she was an unreliable narrator. I could only see things through the filter of Eva's memory, shaped by her own pain, frustration, and rage and by her knowledge of who Kevin became. She saw an infant who cried, not because of colic but because he raged at the world. A newborn who deliberately and vigorously rejected her breast. A toddler who slyly played his parents against one another and refused to be potty trained because he'd be losing a battle against the mother he hated. These perceptions are incredibly warped, not to mention developmentally impossible. Yet the novel drew me so tightly into the confines of Eva's reality that these things seemed quite real. And as Kevin grew into a cold, calculating boy, with an urge to destroy anyone who was capable of feeling real joy or passion, parts of it began to seem believable. Or did it? The line between delusion and reality is blurred here.
Would it have made a difference if Eva had been able to love her son? There is no clear answer. They are caught in a vicious cycle. Her attitude undoubtedly impacts his behavior and view of the world. His behavior triggers her rage and prevents her from bonding with him. This, in turn, deepens his hostility. They are locked in a cruel cycle which we know will end tragically. Nevertheless Eva, who has always relished pushing herself to tackle daunting challenges, works hard at being a conscientious mother.
In a parallel way, Eva and her husband Franklin are trapped in a destructive dance. Franklin is in denial about the fact that his son is deeply troubled. This enrages Eva, who pushes him to see things from her perspective. This only makes Franklin more fiercely protective of Kevin and distrustful of his wife. They have another baby, who becomes "Eva's child," and Franklin keeps their little girl at a distance, adding to the dysfunctional mess.
I didn't find Eva and Franklin to be likeable characters. They struck me as self-absorbed, a bit pedantic, and riddled with prejudices. Eva seldom views people with acceptance and compassion, she tends to view the world with cold detachment, and she maintains a slight sense of intellectual superiority. One of the most chilling and powerful aspects of this novel is the ways in which Eva and Kevin -- despite their animosity -- identify with each other. In her hauntingly sadistic son, Eva sees -- in an exaggerated way -- a mirror of her own dark side.
How much of this is her basic nature and to what degree is her personality painfully mutated by the tragedy she suffered? Again, we only have her perspective in the present, so it's hard to say. I also felt drawn to Eva by the insight and compassion she sometimes feels, her intense intelligence and curiosity about the world, and her love for her husband and daughter. She's a complex character who I couldn't love, or even consistently empathize with, but I certainly couldn't dismiss. And she is a character I will never forget.
This is a dark, miserable story which is likely to make you lose sleep, especially if you're a mother. That goes double if you're the mother of a child with any kind of emotional problems. And it's a brilliant novel. The central characters, and the themes this book explores, are so incredibly rich and multi-layered, it may take me months to sort through all my thoughts about it.
One of the things that makes it so unsettling is that it explores issues experienced -- on a much smaller scale -- by many parents. Difficulty bonding with a child. Raising a kid who isn't the child you expected or wanted. Seeing parts of yourself you reject mirrored in your own children. Disappointment in yourself as a parent and crippling guilt when their lives don't turn out as you'd hoped. These things sound ugly when you say them aloud, but I believe shades of these feelings exist in many "normal," loving parents.
This book also gave me insight into people with personality disorders: antisocial or borderline personalities. Eva seemed to have uncanny insight into the mind of her son, a person who seemed innately incapable of ordinary love, excitement or joy. This left him hollow and driven by rage. It's probably impossible to really see inside the mind of someone like Kevin, but there were moments -- in this novel -- when I felt I was extremely close.
This is a novel that left me feeling ragged. I want to put it out of my mind, and at the same time I don't want to stop thinking about it. I don't want to talk about it, and I'm burning to discuss it with someone. I want to see inside Kevin's and Eva's minds, but it's too unsettling.
Above all, it's a gorgeously written, challenging novel, probably one of the best I've ever read, and it's one of those rare books that shifted my view of people and of the world a little bit. It's definitely one I will never forget.
Have you read this book? If so, what are your thoughts?