We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

A dark, witty tale of guilt and redemption
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The Independent Culture

Kevin is a mass-murderer: a boy who, shortly before his 16th birthday, kills seven classmates, a teacher and a school cafeteria worker. The "we" are, ostensibly, his mother Eva - the narrator of this acutely shocking and profoundly intelligent epistolary novel by an American (woman) writer - and his father Franklin, the estranged husband to whom her letters are addressed.

Kevin is a mass-murderer: a boy who, shortly before his 16th birthday, kills seven classmates, a teacher and a school cafeteria worker. The "we" are, ostensibly, his mother Eva - the narrator of this acutely shocking and profoundly intelligent epistolary novel by an American (woman) writer - and his father Franklin, the estranged husband to whom her letters are addressed.

In these letters, Eva explores the background to, and ramifications of, her son's killing spree. She does so in a way almost entirely devoid of self-pity, dispassionately analytical and inexorably honest. Here she is dissecting one bereaved mother's decision to sue her for negligence: "I fear that Mary's ... evangelical fever to bring the guilty to book, is a clamorous place that creates the illusion of a journey, a goal to be achieved... Somehow Mary seemed confused as to what the problem was. The problem was not who was punished for what. The problem was that her daughter was dead."

Eva asks the inevitable questions: Why did he do it? and How far are we, his parents, to blame? Was Kevin born evil? Or was it that Eva didn't love or like him enough - at all, in fact? Was it that Franklin's commitment to the "idea of sons" prevented him from engaging with the flesh-and-blood one he fathered? Or even that Eva, while pregnant, eschewed the recommended Mozart sonatas, preferring to bop around her New York loft to "Psycho Killer"?

Although honesty doth not a reliable narrator make (and Eva is an impeccably unreliable narrator), when combined with perspicacity and dark wit, it magics a not-particularly-nice person into a sympathetic character. This is no small achievement on Shriver's part. Eva is a woman who gets pregnant partly to have something to talk about at dinner parties, who dislikes her son from the moment he is born, and resents his curtailment of her professional and social life from the moment she conceives.

She is selfish, judgmental, always ready to believe the worst of Kevin and, as he points out with devastating accuracy during their one and only bonding outing, is herself everything she purports to hate about her fellow Americans - spoiled, self-righteous, superior, ignorant - bar fat. And you still fetch up liking her and caring about what happens.

She is, in other words, a superb creation, and this is an important book. At a time when fiction by women has once again been criticised for its dull domesticity, here is a fierce challenge of a novel by a woman that forces the reader to confront assumptions about love and parenting, about how and why we apportion blame, about crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption and, perhaps most significantly, about how we can manage when the answer to the question why? is either too complex for human comprehension, or simply non-existent.

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