Every now and then I read a book that makes me wonder why I don’t just give up trying to write the things myself, because I’ll never get that much under the reader’s skin or into their minds.
The latest is We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
One April in 1999, shortly before Columbine (whose participants he regards as pathetically amateur, juvenile attention seeking losers), 15-year-old Kevin Khatchadourian joins the woefully long list of teenage perpetrators of high school massacres, taking out seven fellow students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker (who wasn’t meant to be there in there) in the school gym. On that day, one way or another, his mother Eva loses everything – husband, daughter, company, house, livelihood; in fact, the one thing she doesn’t lose is … Kevin himself.
The novel takes the form of a series of letters from Eva to her husband, chronicling their life together before and after Kevin’s birth and the nearly 16 years since. It’s a therapeutic exercise for her as she rhetorically asks all the inevitable questions, not really expecting an answer. Was it my fault? Was it ours? Did I/do I love him? Could we have done anything different? This itself makes the book an interesting exercise in reading between the lines. We’re getting Eva’s point of view, she’s writing with hindsight anyway, and in between all the clues and pointers towards what we know is coming, there must have been a lot of time in their day to day lives when life was relatively normal. Was Kevin really that bad? Was her husband really so blind? But even though we know what’s coming, it never gets boring. There is still room for revelation and “oh, I see …” moments, and when the massacre finally happens it’s almost – in a very guilty way – possible to admire it. There is nothing random about this; Kevin knows exactly what he’s doing, and by the end of the book, Eva and we know exactly why he did it. We have no excuses, because there are none; but we do have reasons and they make sense.
There’s still room for humour, albeit very black; like, the simple description of Kevin’s unsuccessful year in a Montessori nursery school, which is predicated on the basis that everyone is innately good and capable of self-improvement. Maybe it was coincidence that all their plants started dying at the same as Eva absently notes the absence of a bottle of bleach she could have sworn was there. The obnoxious school bully that everyone lived in fear of might have had a very good, non-Kevin-related reason for locking himself in a closet and refusing to come out like that. And so on.
One of the few things Eva and Kevin can agree on is their disdain for a world where everything must be someone’s fault, and when something goes wrong you find someone to blame and sue ’em. Where they differ is in how they tackle the problem … It sounds very posy to start quoting William Blake at this point, because believe it or not I don’t have the complete works of Blake committed to memory, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice, but is just so happens that Bonusbarn is studying “Auguries of innocence” and we were discussing it while I read the book. And so it reminded me:
“Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.”
In their own ways, neither Kevin nor Eva rightly knew it.
My one fault with the book isn’t the author’s fault: it’s that the kid on the cover is blond whereas we are oft reminded that Kevin has dark features inherited from his Armenian mother. However, I see there’s going to be a film of it and he will be played by one Ezra Miller, who I’ve never heard of (hey, he’s a kid) but who looks perfect. Meanwhile Eva will be Tilda Swinton, who excels at vulnerable ice queens, and Kevin’s dad is John C. Reilly, who was the lovable chump of a husband in Chicago. It’s almost a bit too perfectly cast, but I still look forward to it.
Probably watching it on my own, though …