Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Plotted like a thriller with a complexity that matches the very best psychological realism
Almost no contemporary fiction is as dark as Lionel Shriver’s 2003, Orange Prize-winning novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Written in the form of first-person letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged and delusional husband Franklin, the book explores the innate (or not) qualities of human behavior. The correspondence comes in the wake of a Columbine-like school massacre – committed by their teenage son, Kevin. After a nasty bout with post-partum depression, Eva spent years trying – and often failing – to love Kevin, who shows almost exclusively sociopathic behavior: He destroys laboriously decorated rooms, kills his little sister’s pet, never smiles. He is a monster, we soon come to see, but it’s unclear whether his evil is inherent, or if instead Eva has somehow failed Kevin irrevocably and made him so. Most unnerving is Kevin’s sick love for Eva, who is better able than Franklin to see through him. The love, or perhaps “respect” is a better word, expresses itself mostly in forms that look like hate – subtle blackmail, moments of wry empathy.
Though naturalistic, Shriver has written a genre novel, but better. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror story: of a mortal mother and natural born devil-of-a-son. Plotted like a thriller and filled in with a complexity that matches the very best psychological realism, Shriver’s book is one of the most haunting of our times.