Full five stars for this one. Please note/ The following is a long analysis, containing SPOILERS, so if you have yet to read the book it may be worth reading this review after, rather than before.
‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver
Even the title reflects the lack of communication and openness between Franklin and Eva, concerning Kevin. This is a powerful and gritty book. It entices, intrigues, and keeps the pages turning. I don’t feel I can do the book justice so will follow the ‘reading club’ questions posed at the back of the book (kindle edition). In all, I can say the book is psychologically deep, great depth of character, almost like an accessible philosophy asking the hard existential questions. The book is essentially one of deconstruction. Eva, the mother, is trying to strip back her thoughts and experiences of Kevin’s childhood, and even pre-Kevin. She is writing letters to her husband Franklin, and now she can finally be open about her experiences. Cleverly, the author does make us question if Eva is deceiving herself. Eva constructs a narrative to try and explain her life, as she tries to come to terms with Kevin’s behaviour. One of the questions asked if Eva and Kevin are alike in any way. The answer is yes! We see Kevin also comes to finally deconstruct his life. He finally has to admit he really does not know.
Was Kevin born a psychopath? The nature/nurture debate is opened up here. However I think that it is not either/or but likely an admixture of the two. Epigenetics, gene expression being altered by environment, is one such consideration. Yes Eva was not the ideal mother, she could be aloof, rejecting, and cold, yet she tries hard. Do we trust Eva’s account of events? For me, I did. The only times I doubted her was when I thought she might have had done something to the elephant shrew. The writing was very clever here. It made me question whether Eva herself was a psychopath. Fortunately the misunderstanding was cleared up. She had nothing to do with its disappearance. This was a major turning point in the book for me to question Eva here. I suddenly thought maybe Kevin was the only one who had known what she was really like all along. It completely coloured previous events a dark hue. I am so glad that Eva was not like that.
I think Eva recognized what her son was capable of. She was the only person who knew him – or as much as anyone could know him. It was almost a conspiracy that Kevin also knew this and it is probably why he wanted his mother as an ‘audience’ rather than the ‘fake’ Franklin. I do not think Franklin knew his son at all. He saw what he wanted to see. Imposed a perfect American family onto the imperfect. All this did was to give Franklin a false perception of Kevin (one he wanted to see). Kevin disliked his father. I think he saw Eva as authentic and Franklin as weak, the way he saw Celia (his little sister) as weak.
He clearly is over-involved with his mother. One could argue he tries to gain her approval/affection/interest and feels piqued when Eva gives any affection to either Franklin or Celia. That Celia (and Eva’s mother) also have some emotional problems may give some support that some genetic element might have been a factor. Although Celia is the complete opposite of Kevin she is a little girl who walks a very tight rope of ‘being good’ for fear of rejection. Her self-esteem is so low, one see her as the child of ambivalent parents with ambiguous behaviours. Basically she does not know what is expected of her. That both children are in mental anguish is a warning sign. Clearly with Celia the parents are nothing but kind to her. Yet she is still a child with a lot of tension and fear.
Eva is insightful she knows the outward persona of Kevin is a lie. One which takes a lot of energy to keep up. It is like the real him is behind defences, nobody can reach him, nobody can hurt him. His mother sees the façade and he seems almost grateful that she can see parts of him he keeps hidden behind the bland, beige exterior of his bedroom, and his mediocre and boring friends.
*spoiler* I do think Kevin had some part to play in damaging Celia’s eye. Somehow the bottle would have had to be taken down out of the cupboard that Celia could not reach. Keeping her glass eyeball could be perceived as not only a trophy of her death but also the damage to her eye.
The traits that Eva and Kevin had in common were they both were highly intelligent, both were aloof, and cold, neither cared about social niceties, both considered themselves special and more courageous and interesting than others. She likens their relationship to a war or battlefield, and it heightens that they are both fighters, neither would concede to the other. They are both highly critical of others and condescending to those they deem not worthy. Kevin definitely takes after Eva in his Armenian looks and his behaviours. Celia who always looks on the bright side of things, and has all American features of blonde hair takes after Franklin.
As regards Franklin and Eva the whole novel being in missive style, is set up that they are separated and heading towards a divorce, although Eva clearly is in love with Franklin, loves him more than anything. I initially thought Franklin was angry with Eva and chose his son above his wife. As Eva states that some men stop investing in their wives and instead see it as a safer bet to invest in their children instead.
Finally I don’t know what motivated Kevin to do what he did on that Thursday. Boredom and disinterest on a scale of a psychopath, the need to be different, the narcissistic idea of being special? Who knows! The question is left open, and perhaps is not answerable even by Kevin himself. Franklin and Celia were surplus to him. He only really needed Eva for his audience. It was only Eva he needed to impress because ultimately only she mattered to him.
I think Eva blames herself. Neither she nor Franklin could reach Kevin when he was a toddler. Yet ultimately the responsibility for his actions on that Thursday lie with Kevin. I do think Eva should have paid for a psychiatrist early on though. I guess the title ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ reveals that it was not something Franklin and Eva could really talk about, acknowledge, or seek professional help.