I will admit – it took me too long to begin this review, but not because it features a sociopathic sixteen-year-old involved in a school shooting and a cold, neglectful mother intent on seeing only evil and malice in her son ever since he was a toddler. Sure, these topics are uncomfortable, and the book discusses many ugly truths. But at the same time, it is astonishing how Lionel Shriver addresses these issues with beautiful prose and despite revealing the climax of the book within the first few chapters, manages to keep her readers hooked until the very end. Quite frankly, it is impossible to discuss this book and the impact it creates without giving away too many details.
We Need to Talk about Kevin is a sordid tale of a family torn apart, the entirety of which is written from the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian, the unfortunate mother of our culprit, Kevin Khatchadourian, who has killed eleven people, including nine classmates. It is a series of letters written by Eva to her estranged husband Franklin Plaskett, where she recounts, chronologically, the events from the moment of Kevin’s birth up to the infamous incident which she nicknames Thursday.
The story builds slowly. In spite of what is, in my opinion, unnecessary details and excessive use of adjectives, this masterfully crafted story poses questions no one dares to ask, raises the age old debate of nature vs nurture, and forces readers to question some of their long held beliefs. The premise is admittedly ugly, and it takes a skillful storyteller to write about this ugliness in a thought provoking manner, and I think Shriver does this beautifully.
From the beginning, it seems that the author wishes to blame Kevin fully for his deeds. From Eva’s unwillingness to have a child to Kevin’s undoubtedly malicious treatment of his mother, we are forced to sympathise with poor Eva. But as the story progresses, we aren’t so sure. Can a three-year-old really hold as much hatred in his heart as Kevin does? Perhaps, Eva is the one to blame – surely her clear dislike toward her own child is what causes Kevin to act this way. Since the entire story is from Eva’s perspective, we cannot say for certain that what she is writing is fully reliable, and not a result of her grief or paranoia.
One of the brilliant things about this book, in my opinion, is how Shriver consistently makes us wonder, through Eva’s words, who the victim really is and whether we could really blame a child for his misbehaviour, and yet never fully answers the questions. At the end of the book, readers are left with even more burning questions and are forced to ponder over them for days.
Despite certain flaws in the book, I truly loved how the characters are created. Kevin is not just a psychopathic mass murderer. Through passing glances, we can see depth to his character. In many instances, it is revealed that he holds a certain amount of respect for his mother – disturbing for sure, considering how much he loves to torment her.
Unreliable though Eva’s narration may be, she speaks with brutal honesty and recounts all events, even the ones where she herself is shown in a negative light. We are, once again, forced to wonder whether Eva should really be held accountable for Kevin’s actions. The father, Franklin, is completely blind to Kevin’s behaviour toward his mother and I think the annoyance we feel toward him is the only thing that all readers will have in common.
At the end of the day, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a heartbreaking, beautiful and undoubtedly disturbing book. It deals with the harsh realities of the world with deceptive simplicity. It is not an easy read, I admit, and certainly not a book you should pick up if you are seeking entertainment. But the questions this story raises are questions I think we all should think about. The fact that Shriver never answers these questions makes this book all the more powerful.
Nadira Tasnim is a Harry Potter obsessed math-nerd who loves watching psychology videos in her free time.