Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a sophomore in high school in 1993, I wrote a big preposterous novel that culminated in a school shooting. I’d read The Basketball Diaries, seen Pearl Jam’s (apparently misunderstood) video for “Jeremy,” and read King’s short novel Rage, so it really didn’t seem anything special to me to write something like that. It was angst-ridden wish-fulfillment of the most obvious kind, sick with its own melodramatic self-righteous anger and autobiographical details. By the time I finished it, I hated the main character only slightly more than I hated myself. I vowed to grow up, and when I wrote my next novel I made it about a girl so it would have less of a chance to be about me.

Then came all the real-life school shootings, and I started to feel even worse–superstitiously complicit, or at least guilty of some kind of thought crime. Watching the CNN coverage of Columbine made me sick to my stomach, and part of the reason I felt so horrible was because of the manic glee I’d had writing some of the worst scenes in that idiotic novel.

So when I heard someone had written a well-reviewed book about a high school massacre, I recoiled. There was simply no way anyone could get it right, and, besides, that was my book. If anyone was going to write it, it should’ve been me.

Well, after reading Lionel Shriver’s book, all I can think to say is: I was so wrong. I knew nothing about this subject, and I’ve just been schooled by a master. I’m so grateful someone better than me took this subject on. Shriver gets everything right in this book, and keeping the novel in the point of view of the mother of a teenager who goes on a killing spree in his high school is a masterstroke.

The plot centers around the efforts of Eva Katchadourian, mother of Kevin Katchadourian, nicknamed KK by the press (which recalls both the initials of Kipland Kinkel as well as, yes, disturbingly, my own), who is in jail after murdering nine people, to put together what it all means and why it happened and come to terms with her culpability as the parent of a murderer.

The triumph of this novel is its ability to put you in the mind of a woman tortured and psychologically abused by her own progeny. Reading this as I did after The Psychopath Test, I found myself often making mental checkmarks as Kevin displayed classic sociopathic tendencies. But even so, this is not a book interested in labels or easy answers so much as it’s a book about the mysteries of character, even Eva’s own. Was she abused by her son, or did she abuse her son? There is no objective answer. There was certainly a war between mother and son, but at the same time it could also seem like an agonized love affair. It’s all so disturbing and uncomfortable and compellingly readable.

Not to mention Shriver’s wonderful prose style, which is literate and still easy to read. It’s great writing that doesn’t attract attention to itself, which is really tough to do.

One thing I still don’t like is the title, which is just a little too “the more you KNOW” and after-school-special-ish for me. But so it goes.

This is one of the best horror novels about being a parent that’s ever been written.

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