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We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver It could be said, genetically speaking, that parenthood is like a box of chocolates, because you never really know what you’re going to get - be it a well-rounded, easy-going, straight A-grade caramel; or a bitter, frustrated, possibly homicidal cherry liqueur. Except I hate that analogy, because every single box of chocolates I’ve ever seen comes with a list telling you exactly what you’re getting - so if you choose to ignore the readily-available resources at your disposal, you probably deserve a nasty surprise or two.

A better analogy in this case, then, might be that parenthood is like a game of Russian roulette. You spin the chamber and pull the trigger, hoping upon hope for that hollow click echoing through the barrel and reverberating against your skull: Congratulations! Your child is an acceptable variation of the definition of the word “normal”. But, this being a game of random chance, every once in a while probability is going to swing against you and all of your fervent “happy family” expectations. BANG.

Oops. Probably should have stuck with Monopoly.

(Spoilers abound ahead!)

According to Eva - Kevin’s mother and the sole narrator of this story - Kevin was born a bad boy; a claim she seems convinced of even from the very first hours after his birth (though whether we can actually entirely trust her version of events is never particularly clear). Not that We Need to Talk About Kevin overplays the importance of genetics in the age-old “Nature versus Nurture” debate; far from it. Both Eva and Franklin (Kevin’s father) appear to sit equidistantly at opposing ends of the terrible parent spectrum, with Eva’s indifference and lack of trust in Kevin directly conflicting with Franklin’s willful blindness and familial over-optimism. Through Eva’s accounts, Shriver suggests to us that it is a combination of some kind of inherent defect within Kevin’s mind, as well as a combined effort from both parents to make all the wrong decisions, which inevitably create a “perfect storm” for the horrifying series of events that unfold.

Unfortunately, this is where my main complaints with the book lie.

My first issue was that, from as young as the age of six, Kevin seems a little too self-aware of his sociopathic tendencies, which elevates him way beyond the levels of “developmentally troubled” and more into the realms of “child of Satan”. If the book had suddenly veered off into paranormal fantasy horror at this point, I don’t think I would have been at all surprised. Rename The Omen to We Need to Talk About Damien and you’re almost there. Of course, this may be symptomatic of Eva’s bias leading to unreliable narration, and Kevin does become more believable as a character as he gets older.

My second issue is that I found Shriver’s portrayal of both parents’ shortcomings just too incredible to be plausible. As a parent myself, I’ve met other parents that I could safely say have studied at the Eva or Franklin schools of parenting, but never to these extremes. Franklin stoically refuses to acknowledge that there’s even a problem, steadfastly and repeatedly shielding his son from blame and even accusing his wife of making up stories, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against Kevin; whereas Eva, seeing the results of Kevin’s actions and even experiencing them firsthand, still refuses to act. I mean, these are supposedly well-educated, wealthy, enlightened and forward-thinking adults; Eva is well-read and even runs a successful company that publishes travel guides - so why on earth doesn’t it ever occur to her to either; A, start reading up on possible symptoms of psychological conditions or; B, seek professional help for her son? Kevin almost certainly displays sociopathic tendencies from an early age which, irrespective of his ability to manipulate people and situations to his advantage, would be exposed through careful scrutiny by an expert.

Shriver’s insistence on pushing both the nature and nurture angles to such extremes really stretched my suspension of disbelief to its limits and, for me, actually succeeded in damaging the credibility of the story. It’s frustrating, because this is a very brave attempt to tackle an extremely taboo subject. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Who is to blame? Who should we blame? Shriver never attempts to answer these questions, because the answers are never simple; there are too many factors and variables that lead to a final, fatal culmination of events.

And those final few chapters are truly horrifying, it really must be said.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good book, with touches of genuine brilliance, but sadly marred by inexplicable examples of parental buffoonery that push the boundaries of credibility.

Oh, and if you’re at all ambivalent about the possibility of becoming a parent, then reading this book will probably put you off the idea of having kids for life. To put it bluntly: it’s a 400-page contraceptive.