Interesting is an adjective that will not do justice to Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin. Adjectives like thought-provoking, disturbing come close.
This book is a set of letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband Franklin. Through these letters she narrates the harrowing incident of her son, Kevin, going on a killing spree in his school which results in seven death and two injuries. The book is in Eva’s voice, first person narration and the story seems one-sided at times and it surely is, it is after all just Eva’s version of the story that you get to hear.
The book covers Eva’s courtship days with Franklin, their her post-marriage days, her decision to become a mother, Kevin’s birth and the strange relationship Eva has with her son. Eva finds her son cold towards her and that is an understatement. At times, one gets a feeling as if the mother and the son are on a war with each other.
Those odd incidents which Eva narrates makes one wonder whether to believe her. I only get to read Eva’s side of the story and I often wondered how credible they were. I wish I could elaborate more on those incidents, but then I will have to attach a spoiler label. The characters are completely believable, mind you, it is only these incidents that makes you wonder if Eva is truthful. Kevin and Eva live out their part with all colors. Franklin expresses certain shades, but is not completely developed.
For most part of the book, Eva evoked sympathy and compassion in me. There were times when I hated her, even thought that she was insane. (I don’t want to tread into dangerous water here, but I mentioned to my male friend that this book could be difficult to understand for the male species and he didn’t take it well, so I will refrain from saying anything.) When it comes to Kevin, I am torn between loathing and pity. Certain encounters between Kevin and Eva leave you wondering what their relationship actually is.
The language is anything but simple. I struggled in the initial few pages, but once my mind settled down to taking in new words and complicated sentences, the reading went more smoothly. It becomes difficult to distinguish between Eva, the protagonist, and Lionel, the author of the book. Eva is well read, intelligent, well-traveled and doesn’t hesitate to show her special talents. One tends to think whether the author is showing off her extra-ordinary vocabulary skills through Eva. Of course, authors sketch their characters based on people they meet, so no harm if you use some dimension of your own personality to give your character more depth.
The book moves fast. The interlude of the present situations with Eva’s past works really well. The author shows tremendous control over the mixture of past and present. There is no one sentence in the book which is extraneous. Every sentence, every word does justice (and my paperback version is all of 468 pages).
So, does this book work? Yes, it does, even though the author uses the unconventional method of letters to narrate her story, it works. It probably wouldn’t have worked without these letters. At the end of it, the book leaves a lot for the reader’s guess. This book is not black and white, but a beautiful grey, which the readers can interpret in any way they want. This worked for me.
If you are going to pick this up to know why kids take up a gun and go bang-bang, then please keep the book back. The book is not about that incident. It uses the incident to set a plot, but the book is much more generic. If you expect an answer for the question, you will be disappointed.
The best part about this book is that it does not try to answer the question. This book touched me and more importantly, it made me think.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone. Even if this book is not your kind, pick it up, you might take something from it.