Wednesday, July 21, 2010
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
I have a dark fascination with high school shootings, which isn’t surprising. Horror books and movies are an addiction I’ve had since childhood. High school shooters are boogeymen made all the more terrifying by their familiarity—they’re someone’s classmate, brother, boyfriend, son.
In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the boogeyman’s tale is told in letters from Kevin’s mother, Eva Khatchadourian to her husband, Franklin. Talk about ‘round’ characters. Shriver is brilliant here. I must reread this book again just to study how she brings Eva to life. It’s masterful.
Ms. Shiver isn’t a mother, but she captures the frustrations of parenthood perfectly. Young Kevin makes Damien from The Omen seem like piquant prankster. In one memorable scene, Eva picks up five-year-old Kevin and chucks him across the room. Instead of being horrified by this child abuse, part of me felt Eva’s actions were (almost) justified. Child-rearing can take you to very dark places. I haven’t tossed my kids across a room, but they have made me angrier than any other person on the planet. Whenever I see parents losing their tempers with their kids in public, it gives me the warm fuzzies—not because I’m enjoying the parent’s pain, but there’s comfort in knowing it’s not just me. Eva’s loss of control moved me in the same way.
Another hurdle Ms. Shriver handles beautifully is suspense. The massacre is not a surprise. We know it’s coming. The juicy part is seeing how the main event fails to be prevented despite all the warning signs. It’s like the frog-in-hot-water phenomena. Put a frog in boiling water and it’ll jump out. But put a frog in warm water and heat it up slowly—well, supposedly you can boil that sucker alive. Eva acclimates herself to the horror of her son in order to survive, but she pays one hell of a price. (Be warned, the ending has a gut-wrenching twist.)
As an interesting footnote, Ms. Shiver’s agent did not want to send this book out to editors, so Shriver shopped it around herself. Not only was it published, it won U.K.’s Orange Prize for fiction and is being made into a movie.