I’m probably the last person on earth to read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and I’m kind of embarrassed about it. But better late than never, I suppose, and the only thing I regret is not tucking into it earlier. I’m afraid I’m not immune to literary snobbishness entirely: a book that’s been so successful, so universally lauded – or so it seems – is almost bound to disappoint. As my tastes – both literary and otherwise – tend to be deviant I expected not to like this book. And during the first fifty pages or so, I was proved right.
I’m not a fan of the fake-letter-format the book uses: most books I’ve read don’t employ it very well. A common problem appears to be that writers forget that they’re writing a series of letters after a page or two. The result is prose that looks like anything, except a letter. I write lots of letters, particularly to my grandmother who stubbornly refuses to adopt Skype, so I know a letter when I see one. Letters don’t contain extensive dialogue. They don’t go into endless amounts of detail – your hand will cramp before you can. Unfortunately We Need to Talk is no exception: while its format is appropriate for the story, its main character Eva often reads like a novelist rather than a correspondent.
Which brings me to my second point: the main character. Eva is profoundly unlikeable. It’s not that I mind unlikeable characters in general: American Psycho remains one of my favourite books and I can’t imagine having Patrick Bateman as a friend. Perhaps its due to my spiky personality, but I spent most of the first half shouting at Eva: “You Should Never Have Had a Kid in the First Place!” Her incessant whining really got on my nerves. I’ve got a suspicion that this is exactly the point, but when I can’t even enjoy how horrible a character is and he or she inspires nothing but contempt, I don’t feel like finishing the book. I feel like tossing it in a corner and moving on to something else.
In this case I’m glad I didn’t. For, lo and behold, Eva is not the only unlikeable character of the book. Of course there’s Kevin, who is described as an absolute psychopath from day one. But there’s also Franklin, Eva’s husband, who in all his goody-two-shoes-ness annoyed the crap out of me. And even their daughter, Celia, made me want to punch her in her fictional face. So much for reading being a relaxing experience. But the good thing was that, as everyone in the book was a complete idiot, I became intrigued. There was no one to sympathize with. Therefore, the book became a challenge: who should be believed? Whose fault are the terrible incidents that affect Eva’s family? Is Kevin indeed a psychopath, or is Eva making everything up to stop people from blaming her for what he did?
The last 100 pages really got me. This is where the story describes Kevin’s actions in depth and this is where, thankfully, an explanation for them is NOT given. Kevin is depicted as a disturbingly empty character: he doesn’t like anything, he doesn’t feel passionate about anything, and life for him is a fundamentally useless experience. As someone who is passionate about a lot of things this made me profoundly uncomfortable. In a good way. For if you don’t like anything, don’t love anyone, what’s the point? Why stick around? In this way the novel managed to convey what makes the type of crime Kevin commits so horrible: the fact that there is never a satisfying explanation. There is no point. Yet it happens.
Another thing that, as a childfree single woman, made me think was its emphasis on how society promotes procreation. Eva doesn’t have a baby because she wants to, but because she feels she should. I think many people think like her, though few would probably admit it, and it bothers me. Luckily I’m never asked when I’m going to have babies – I suspect that being single really helps – but I can imagine it being mildly irritating when you’re trying to have a life and all people are interested in is when you are going to have kids. As if your life is insignificant without a mini-me. The implicit idea that, somehow, people (meaning women) haven’t truly lived until they’ve had a baby, is of course very much alive. And while I don’t think the novel argues that people like Kevin are the result of this persisting thought, it does make me wonder what makes life worth living for me. Which brings me back to Kevin: he doesn’t think anything is worth living for. So how does he really feel about his mother?
I like this. I like books that make me think.