We Need to Talk About Kevin

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"Children?... I can personally attest that they make us wish we were never born."

I recently listened to a TED talk by a woman who is fed up with people telling her that she'll regret her choice to not have children. Sometimes I wonder if We Need to Talk About Kevin was Lionel Shriver's literary response to the same question. For as any woman who has opted to remain child free will attest, there's a subtle, pervasive idea within society that a childless woman is somehow abhorrent to nature. But what if it's the child that's abhorrent? That's one of many tantalising questions raised in this 2003 novel.

The Story

Eva Khatchadourian is a successful entrepreneur who goes against her better judgement and has the baby that her more traditional, family-minded husband Franklin longs for. But from day one, it becomes clear that Eva and her baby son Kevin fail to make that all-important bond. Eva becomes slowly convinced that her son is a malign presence in the house. Always terse and sullen with her, he is the model child when in the presence of Franklin. He doesn't speak until he's three, beginning straight off the bat with whole sentences. He soils his nappies until the age of six, terrorises the other children at school and sees to it that his parents can never get the same babysitter twice. The more Eva tries to convince Franklin of their son's malevolence, the more frustrated with her he becomes, convinced that she's imagining it and even-on occasion- that she might be the source of some of his problems herself. When Eva decides to have another child to prove to herself that she does have maternal feelings, her instinct proves right and she develops an instant bond with her daughter, Celia. But Kevin is soon to rob her of all of the things she loves. Just before his sixteenth birthday, he goes on a rampage with a bow and arrow, killing eleven people, nine of whom are students at his high school. Most of the novel is told in the form of letters from Eva to Franklin after the event, recounting her visits to Kevin in prison and her life of abject loneliness, before the denouement that in fact Franklin and Celia were also killed on that fateful Thursday.

Family In Kevin

Did Eva create a monster, or did nature? That's the question at the story's heart. From the moment he's born, Kevin seems to reject his mother, refusing the breast when he's minutes old. When the family move to a suburban house that Eva hates, Kevin sprays ink all over her 'room of ones own' study, decorated with the maps of the places all over the world she's traveled to create her successful travel guides. He soils his nappies defiantly right after she changes them and rejects the toys she makes for him. Certainly, he seems like a difficult child, but equally, Eva does seem to really hate him. The ink incident happens after she confiscates his squirt gun- before Franklin promptly returns it- and she describes how depriving him of it gives her a "gush of savage joy". Reading the novel often leaves you pondering that age-old riddle, 'which came first; the serial killer or the egg?"

It's extremely telling that the only time the pair bond in infancy is right after she's driven to her wits' end and breaks Kevin's arm when she throws him across the room following another nappy-soiling incident. Kevin, in later years, describes it as "the most honest thing you ever did" and she's rewarded by him for this after it happens by keeping it a secret, prompting Eva to note that:

"During the very assault that we were concealing, Kevin too may have felt whole, yanked to life by the awesome saisal strength of the umbilical chord."

Just as Eva sees through Kevin's act where his father is concerned

, Kevin sees through Eva's pretence at being a loving mother. In later years, the only time Kevin lets his guard down with Eva is when he becomes very sick aged ten, perhaps because he's too weak to keep up his hatred. Other than that, the two maintain their mutual distrust of each other, which lingers on into her prison visits.

But it's not Eva that he kills. It's everything she loves that he takes away until he is literally all that she has. And Eva doesn't turn her back on her son after the killing. Quite the reverse, in fact; she hires the best lawyers to help his case, ensuring that she is reviled by the entire community on top of everything else. Their actions reveal that in the most perverse and sick way, the bond between Eva and Kevin is in fact the strongest of all. This seems to be borne out at the end of the story, when Kevin, now almost eighteen and facing a transfer to an adult correctional facility, suddenly becomes vulnerable. The two hug for the first time and Eva acknowledges that she does in fact love him. Perhaps, in their dark complexities, they really are like two peas in a pod.

Either way, read this book if you ever want to feel smug about not having kids, and then buy copies for anyone who ever tries to shame you on that choice. 

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