I have slowly been chomping my way through this novel for the past six months, picking it up and becoming absorbed for a few pages before putting it down again and not touching it for weeks. This is a symptom of my busy-ness and the drain on my intellectual capacities that has been occurring the last few months, rather than anything to do with this book. Because this book? Is incredible. Astounding. Shocking. Perfect.
I like my books dark - the darker the better - and they don't come much darker than 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. Set in the aftermath of a Columbine-style shooting coldly orchestrated by Kevin himself, Kevin's mother writes a series of letters to her estranged husband, Franklin, reflecting on her version of events. He, it seems, had a rather rose-tinted view of young Kevin - boys will be boys, after all - but Eva saw a sinister side of Kevin. The two never bonded, and the question remains: is it because Kevin is inherently evil from the moment he is born, or is he 'turned' evil by Eva's lack of maternal love? I won't give away too many details, because I want you to read this for yourself (and then call me so we can talk all about it), but she narrates a series of incidents that take place over Kevin's life which seem to suggest the former; from Eva's point of view, Kevin comes across as calculating, manipulative and cruel - but is that just because she is the one telling the story?
From other reviews I've read, I think Eva is supposed to be written as an unattractive woman. Others were shocked and appalled by her treatment of baby Kevin, as she believes that his 'bad' behaviour is done on purpose to to torture her. It's true that she does not have many of the qualities of a likeable character, or of an 'acceptable' woman. She has no desire for children, and very few maternal feelings towards Kevin. She hates America and Americans for being backwards and bigoted, despite herself being one. She is discontented and selfish. Pretentious, for sure. But I didn't find her unattractive or unlikeable. Far from it, in fact. I'm not sure whether it is because I can be selfish and pretentious, but I identified with Eva. She is incredibly realistic to me - a woman who is having children because society, and her husband, tells her that she must, when really she'd much rather travel the world and continue her successful career as a travel writer, which she finds wonderfully fulfilling. Whilst she's not a good parent, per se, she is not a bad one either. She goes through all the right moves, even if her heart isn't in it. Which makes this all the scarier - if I were in the situation that she is in, I'm not sure I would have reacted very differently.
Some of my favourite moments in the book are when Eva goes to visit Kevin in prison. Clearly unrepentant, the pretence is gone and Kevin seems to take pride in his crime, taunting Eva cruelly. She, no longer having to keep up the façade of loving mother, can question him openly in her search for answers. Kevin, it appears, is exactly as Eva has described him: a cold, manipulative boy who responds to the meaninglessness of life by doing something so horrific that he can never be forgotten. And yet, you never get any definitive answers. There are some moments towards the end where you can glimpse a reason behind the massacre, where you feel like you're finally grasping at some truth, but it slips away just as quickly.
The whole book is beautifully written, for something with such an ugly premise. The vocabulary blew me away (it's not often I have to reach for a dictionary whilst reading, but Shriver was pulling out the big guns, and it worked wonderfully). The slow creep towards an inevitable denouement was tantalising and terrifying all at once. And yet, even as you think you know what will happen, the final descriptions of Kevin's actions are shocking, surprising and even more affecting than you can imagine. Pro tip: Don't read this just before bed, you'll get some whacky dreams.
A real must-read, I'm glad that I finally got around to reading this masterpiece, and am very much looking forward to watching the film*. But, as a lover of dark books - where can I go from here?!
*As an aside, I was reminded when sourcing pictures for this review how much I hate when they replace book covers with film images once the movie comes out. It's an irrational annoyance, I know, but I refuse to buy into it. Let me have the whimsical covers!