EPS Review #126 - We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, Serpent's Tail, 2003(2005), 400pp.

People do need to talk about Kevin. Friends kept calling up P right after they finished the book, to natter about it. She recommended it to me, but I said that Vernon God Little had already been more than I wanted to read about high-school murderers (though the topic does seem to generate literary prizes). More and more people talked about the novel, and finally my book club chose it.

Ms. Shriver writes well. P chose the passage about the red enamel paint on Eva's doorstep as a good example. Still, I found myself missing the over-the-top style of Vernon God Little, which was at least funny occasionally. My book clubbers protest that the satire of the USA in Kevin is amusing, but it is a faint sort of humor, I think.

The key appeal of this story is the fear that all parents feel, the fear that they will not love their own child (or be loved back). I remember that my mother was quite disturbed by Bradbury's Small Assassin. Such is the balance of Shriver's writing that you can mostly believe in Kevin, though there were a couple of moments where I thought: wow, I would have taken severe measures here. I liked how the father, Franklin, interpreted the same evidence differently. As a non-fiction lover (though, strangely I do not read "true crime"), I was reassured that Shriver had done her homework on all the other teenage killers, but I later read an interview where she says she discarded the research. She plays to my opinions by calling the killings banal. I heard Shriver on Radio 4. She is charmingly straight-talking. She has no children ("though god knows I have siblings"), and thinks it was an advantage in writing the book.

Spoilerish anti-spoiler: if you have been told about a twist in the end, ignore this. It put me into skeptical mystery-reading mode. Was Franklin really the dad? Was Kevin really the killer? All kinds of unlikely possibilities went through my head, and diminished the moment when it unfolded.

One of my favorite works about an adolescent is Into the Wild. It touches on the ascetic/spiritual angle of teen angst, which I think is often overlooked in favor of the usual sex and drugs stuff.

Lionel's column is interesting.

Stephen wrote: interesting but won't make me read the book! Have you seen Doris Lessing's Fifth Child?

Susan wrote: I don't think it's a coincidence that Shriver doesn't have children. I was just talking about this book last night to a friend, it does stay with you. I thought it was beautifully written, powerful and disturbing. Maximum amount of stars from this reader.

Jeff wrote: I found the book provocative. I hated Franklin, and then felt Shriver bailed out by making Kevin human in the last page of the book. Lame.