“We need to talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver is a book that lends itself to polarizing reviews; some gushing about its chilling authenticity and some claiming that its spiralling tunnel of darkness is just unreal and implausible.
It’s book about a family. A mother, her son, her daughter and her husband. But it’s anything but a family saga. What happens to a family when the son becomes a killer and the mother embarks on a journey – a dogged need to find closure and responsibility, even if the finger points back at herself?
There’s one scene that haunts me from the book; the image which stays with me even after I finish reading the book.
When Eva, the mother, gets a call from about the shooting rampage at her son’s school and rushes, her mind numb, hoping to find that her son is safe. And then, as she enters the school, she sees her son being walked out by the police. Not a victim but the perpetrator of the heinous crime. Her relief at finding him alive quickly shifting to the niggling terror that she always felt that it would one day come to this. That she knew this, in her heart and she did nothing about it.
“We need to talk about Kevin” is not an easy book to read, specially, if you are a parent. We are used to loving our children; fussing over them and expecting the best for them; not imagining even for a moment – what if they turn out be killers, or ask that fatal question- did we turn them into what they eventually become?
The fact that Kevin, the character the book is about, is a killer, is mentioned right in the beginning. The book delves into the age-old question of nature vs. nurture against the chilling backdrop of rising teenage shootouts at American schools and the reflections of a reluctant mom on her own terrifying recollections of her son; a son for whom she felt no love but just a growing sense of dread and fear.
The book alternates between the past where she tries to find the threads of evidence and disturbing incidents that had been building up to the present where she communicates with her absent husband through letters to tell him about her reflections and failed parenting attempts. And in a sort of stark bridge between these reflections, she attempts to meet Kevin at the prison to see if she can finally understand his anger and his fear.
We are introduced to the mother as a successful business woman who has no wish to become a mother. That she does not welcome motherhood is apparent. The questions she asks and the answers the readers seek are less apparent. Was her child born evil, or did her resentment turn him into one? Or was it her husband’s blind acceptance of him and refusal to look at her increasingly disturbed reports about his behaviour the real tipping point? Was Kevin really an evil psychopath who could manipulate both his parents or a child who was just rebelling against his parents?
The book also raises another question that plagues society today, especially where weapons are as easily accessible as the next chocolate or soap. Who do such disturbed kids kill? Is it always strangers or does the trail of death and destruction actually start from their own homes?
Wisely, the author does not give us an unequivocal answer to the question she raises. By painting the entire story from the mothers’ side, she raises questions about prejudices. The prejudices all of us have when we judge parents, and specially mothers, for what and who their children are. As a mother of an almost-teen, at the end of the book, I found myself asking that question. How far can a parent influence and control the behaviour of their children?