Every mass-murderer has a mother. If she abandoned her child at birth, or subjected them to an unstable home, poverty, or abuse, then she would inevitably be cited as a contributing factor to the killer’s unnatural psyche. This seems logical enough, particularly if, like Kevin, he is just sixteen years old: she must have done something wrong.
But Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, made up of haunting, retrospective letters from Kevin’s mother to her estranged husband, challenges the status quo: this troubled parent is no trailer-trash. Eva Khatchadourian is a class act: a strikingly articulate, highly educated and financially independent woman, who, we learn, was fulfilled both professionally and in her marriage. Yet while her first-hand tale of woe feels both engaging and honest, the reader must be suspicious, for this could prove to be one spectacularly unreliable narrator.
The book club was divided by those who admired Eva’s spirit and those who detested her apparent egomania; and also by those who blamed her – at least partly – for KK’s crimes, and those who would exonerate her. We Need To Talk About Kevin is Eva’s complex account of the years leading up to the euphemistic Thursday, but while her tone borders on being confessional, it is peppered with conflicting doses of self-justification. And as the readers of Shriver’s prickly creation, we automatically become Eva’s judges.
When did the trouble with Kevin start? The reluctant mother writes candidly of the reservations she has towards him even before he is born; she resents the intrusion of pregnancy and later diagnoses herself with postnatal depression, but never deigns to seek medical help. We debated whether a small child could ever be held accountable for his actions, regardless of his extended unwarranted tantrums or apparently pernicious behaviour. Is Kevin born bad, as Eva would have us believe, or is he instinctively responding to her inability to bond with him? Read any review of this book online, and overwhelmingly sympathies seem to lie with Eva for being cursed with such a “horrible” child. But I maintain that Shriver, herself childless and therefore objective, writes too inscrutably to allow for a straightforward reading.
With the birth of sweet, compliant Celia, the family’s demarcation seems clear: it’s boys against girls; or the father who adores Kevin against the mother who Celia describes as her “best fwend”. Eva falls into parenting so effortlessly this time that it seems to vindicate all her previous misgivings. So why do we find ourselves dismissing Celia as a pathetic sap, and Franklin as hopelessly naïve, in contrast to the cynical-but-interesting personalities of Kevin and Eva? These pairings are even echoed in their names: Eva and Kevin Khatchadourian; Franklin and Celia Plaskett. That Eva has chosen to portray her husband and daughter in this way suggests that she is secretly as contemptuous of them as Kevin was. As her son comments, “you can be kinda harsh”.
Lastly, what should we make of the ending, when, after thanking Kevin for his honesty in response to her finally asking “Why?” (“I used to think I knew…Now I’m not so sure”), Eva wearily concedes that, after all, she loves her son. Is this an affirmative portrayal of a mother’s redemptive love, or a sinister condoning of the son’s sins? Are we touched when she thoughtfully puts aside Kevin’s well-thumbed copy of Robin Hood for him as she looks forward to his release? No, I closed the book with a sense of continuing unease that she should co-operatively choose to preserve this, the literary inspiration for his evil.
Still, as Eva ultimately muses, whether she is innocent or guilty makes no difference now: mother and son are inextricably linked by an unchangeable past. But to return briefly to the significance of the protagonists’ names, the final point I’d like to raise is this: is it just an odd coincidence that the letter ‘v’ takes the same shape as the tip of an arrow?