Lionel Shriver


"We Need to Talk About Kevin"

(Reviewed by Jana Perskie NOV 28, 2004)

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a disquieting, provocative, and brilliantly written novel about a mother, desperately attempting to understand why her son, 15-year-old Kevin, brutally, with premeditation, murdered seven of his fellow classmates, a cafeteria worker and his English teacher in a Columbine-style school massacre. There have been nationwide discussions on the cause of events like these - especially during the 1990s when it seemed like school shootings ran rampant throughout the US. In Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, Littleton, seemingly normal kids, kids who had almost everything a child could want, became terribly derailed. Some argue that the proliferation of and easy access to guns is the cause; others that the excess of violence in movies, TV programs and video games induce violent behavior in children and adolescents. The one question almost everyone seems to have in common is, "What were these murderous kids' parents like?" "Didn't they recognize symptoms of violence in their own children?"

Eva Khatchadourian, Kevin's bereft mother, narrates this novel through a series of compelling letters to her estranged husband, Franklin. She examines her son's life, from conception to his terrible act of violence, trying to understand the why of it. What becomes clear early on is that Eva tortures herself with blame. She is guilt-ridden that her shortcomings as a parent might have caused Kevin's evil act, his violent behavior, his very nature. She must have failed, she must have been deficient as a mother, for her boy to commit such a chilling crime. She also considers that neither nature nor nurture are solely responsible for shaping a child's character. Her honest, introspective correspondence to her beloved husband causes the reader to consider that some children just might be born bad. How and when are psychopaths created? The reader is pulled back and forth between empathy and blame, anger and grief, and perhaps, ultimately to forgiveness.

Through Eva's perspective we watch a story unfold. A happy, almost idyllic marriage to Franklin; a brilliant career in a business which she, herself, created; her ambivalent feelings when she became pregnant, an event which interfered with her career; the indifference she felt when she held her son for the first time; Kevin's difficult infancy - he refused his mother's milk and didn't like to be held by her; his total manipulation of his father, who believed Kevin could do no wrong, putting a permanent strain on the marriage; Kevin's lack of empathy and cruel streak, which he blatantly flaunted in front of his mother and hid from his Dad; and Eva's fear that her dislike for her son, which she went overboard to conceal, would damage him - further escalating his already violent nature.

We Need To Talk About Kevin examines how a heinous event can impact a town, a marriage, a family and an individual. It also causes the reader to reflect on the concept of unconditional love. Lionel Shriver's clear, crisply crafted prose builds tension throughout her novel, ultimately leading to a stunning conclusion. Her narrative is almost perfectly paced. This is an extraordinary psychological study that gripped me, riveted me, from the first page to the last. And the author ably portrays the complexity and the horror of the act and the consequences. I was seriously left breathless and horribly saddened after finishing the book. This is most definitely not an "up" novel or a light read. However, it may be my favorite book of 2004 and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I have purchased 2 more of Ms. Shriver's novels as a result of reading this one.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 357 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from We Need to Talk About Kevin at Serpent's Tail

 

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"We Need to Talk About Kevin"

(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel FEB 22, 2004)

"I may be hounded by that why question, but I wonder how hard I've really tried to answer it. I'm not sure that I want to understand Kevin, to find a well within myself so inky that from its depths what he did makes sense. Yet little by little, led kicking and screaming, I grasp the rationality of Thursday."

I ordered a book online this past December, just from the blurb in the flyer. "A controversial novel that has sparked ample word of mouth attention, here is the chilling story of a mother struggling to understand where her son Kevin went off the tracks, before massacring seven fellow high school students." After finishing it, I begged Judi (the editor / owner of mostlyfiction.com) to allow me to write a review on this. She said, "Yes," so here I am.

It's early in the year, but I feel that We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, will be one of my very favorite books of 2004. This book seems so important to me, I can't understand why it hasn't gotten more publicity. Maybe by being so REAL and current it is scaring people off.

Eva Khatchadourian's son, Kevin, is currently serving time in the Claverack Juvenile Detention Center for murdering seven of his classmates, his English teacher and a cafeteria worker in the gymnasium of his high school, Gladstone High. Eve has experienced and lived through his criminal trial, and has recently experienced being sued civilly by the parents of one of the murdered children for the act Kevin committed.

We meet Eva on November 8, 2000 -- a year and a half after the incident. She has decided to write to her estranged husband regarding the events in her life. The letter states.

"I'm unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write you. It's still difficult for me to venture into public. You would think, in a country that so famously has "no sense of history," as Europeans claim, that I might cash in on America's famous amnesia. No such luck.

"Khatchadourian," the girl pronounced when I handed her my debit card. She spoke loudly, as if to those waiting in line. It was late afternoon, the right shift for an after-school job; possibly about seventeen, the girl could have been one of Kevin's classmates.she fixed me with a hard stare. "That's an unusual name."

I'm not sure what got into me, but I'm so tired of this. It's not that I have no shame. Rather, I'm exhausted with shame, slippery all over with its sticky albumen taint. It's not an emotion that leads anywhere. "I'm the only Khatchadourian in New York state," I flouted, and snatched my card back. She threw my eggs in a bag, where they drooled a little more."

It is evident from the beginning of this novel that Eva does not know why her son went on a rampage on a Thursday in April, but she has decided to write to her husband and try to come to some logical conclusion.

As readers, we go through this cathartic journey with Eva, as she writes her daily ponderings and activities, in addition to going through her memories to journal the events in her life. These letters to Franklin, her husband, are painstakingly direct and honest; they are the words of a woman with nothing to lose, as she has already lost everything. With intricate precision, Eva documents her life and the history of her family, always trying to answer the question "why."

This is an amazingly powerful novel. Lionel Shriver has given us an important work of art, and I urge everyone who is concerned with our teenagers to seek this one out. When a tragedy as described in this book happens, I think we as a culture are quick to say, "Where were the parents?" This book attempts to answer that question with compassion and heartbreaking honesty. Eva Khatchadourian is an incredible character and deserves our complete attention, even if the honesty is, at times, hard to take.

And Lionel Shriver? She has written six novels prior to this one; my library has none of them, which makes me angry, and they're out of print per Amazon, but I know this is one novelist I'll be looking for in the future.

Find this book, and pass it around; it may not be pleasant, but sometimes it's just a good thing to look at a different perspective.
  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 357 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from We Need to Talk About Kevin at Serpent's Tail

 



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About the Author:

Lionel ShirverLionel Shriver attended Columbia University and lived for many years in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

We Need to Talk About Kevin won the 2005 Orange Prize.

She currently lives in New York.

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