We Need to Talk About Kevin

This was the best psychological thriller I’ve read. It did make me tense! And actually, the book gives away the end at the beginning, so you know what’s going to happen but you want to know exactly how it happened. I got quite angry at times too, especially about how the protagonist, a disaffected American teenager who goes on a killing rampage, treats his sister.

This is the story of Kevin Khatchadourian, who kills seven of his schoolmates, a teacher and a cafeteria worker. It is narrated from the point of view of his mother, in a series of letters to her husband. Eva, the mother, is somewhat distant to her son from the beginning, and I think the boy suffers from psychological problems that make him malicious. The author has planned to keep us in doubt as to whether it’s Eva’s fault or there was not much she could do. Well I’m quite convinced that Eva is doing her best given the circumstances. Right after birth, the baby refused to nurse, and later she contracted infection on both of her breasts anyway, so she could never breastfeed him. It all starts there and develops further until he decides to punish his mother in the most horrible way, sparing her life for her to live in agony and shame.

Eva was aware quite early on that there was something wrong with their son:

“So insistent was I that [Dr.] Foulke pin a disability to our son, stamp a name-brand American syndrome on Kevin’s forehead, that the pediatrician must have thought me one of those neurotic mothers who craved distinction for her child but who in our civilization’s latter-day degeneracy could only conceive of the exceptional in terms of deficiency and affliction” (p. 134).

Maybe I’m too impatient (I’m not a parent yet) but I think I’d leave the boy to his loving and gullible father quite soon if I were Eva. Yes, her husband, Franklin, always chooses to believe their son was well-meaning and I think just isn’t observant enough, which makes readers want to shout at him to open his eyes.

The novel offers fine explorations of the human psychology, I think the letter format allows this. I found the letters honest. Reviewers unanimously call Eva an unreliable narrator, but I believed in her. Maybe I’m being naïve, but someone who’s telling their version of stories wouldn’t admit so sincerely that she’s always had mixed feelings about their own child. I couldn’t help find her all too human as she explained that she was sentenced to brutal fines because she didn’t make an effort at eliciting sympathy for her own son in court.

But, the book opens with a very powerful quote: “A child needs your love most when he deserves it least” (Erma Bombeck). So maybe it was the mother instinct that made Eva feel guilty. And at the end of the book, she still kept visiting Kevin in prison, and Kevin eased up a bit on her too.

Even if we know what Kevin is eventually going to do, there is still a surprise element at the end – I did not expect that at all. I think the novel is very well constructed, and very well narrated too. Lionel Shriver uses lots of American slang and colloquialisms, I found that a challenge in the beginning, then got used to it. Like:

“‘Brian’s kids,’ I introduced formally. ‘They make you want one?’

‘M-m-maybe. They’re cute. Then, I’m not the one who has to stuff the beasties in the sack when they want a cracker, Mr. Bunnikins, and 5 million drinks of water.’

I understood. These talks of ours had a gameliness, and your opening play was noncommittal. One of us always got lodged into the role of the parental party pooper and I had rained on the progeny parade in our previous session: A child was loud, messy, constraining, and ungrateful (p. 19).”

Kevin is half-Armenian on his mother’s side. He has a disdain for anything traditional, cultural or historical – he hates it when his mother cooks Armenian food. But I think Armenian history provides a broad point of reference for the plot. First of all, there’s symmetry between Kevin’s act of mass killing and the events of 1915. As I said, Kevin doesn’t feel Armenian at all, and believes that his mother clings to a victim psychology. One day, as the family learns about a school shooting incident in the news, Eva protests:

“‘More drowning in self-pity! I said. ‘Oh, no, my girlfriend doesn’t love me any more, I’m gonna kill five people!’

‘What about all that Armenian shit?’ asked Kevin, cutting his eyes toward me flintily. ‘Oh, no, like, a million years ago the Turks were big meanies and now nobody cares! That’s not self-pity?’

‘I’d hardly put genocide on a par with being jilted,’ I snapped” (p. 365).

So Eva has to go from “my kin has been massacred” to “my kin has massacred people”- on a smaller scale. She is paralysed when she bumps into the mothers of those killed in town.

I thought that the Armenian connection served as a point of reference on another level as well. Every now and then Eva talks about her mother, who’s a complete contrast to her. Traumatized by the events of 1915 and 1945 – her husband died fighting in WWII – she never goes out of her house – agoraphobia? Eva, on the contrary, cherishes freedom more than anything else, and as a professional career she has chosen to edit travel guides, collecting information personally in destinations that she writes about. Well, that’s part of why she feels uneasy about being a mother.

The film hasn’t shown in Turkish cinemas, and now I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the DVD, which will be released next February. Tilda Swinton doesn’t look Armenian at all to me, but I think her pale skin and sharp facial features make her the ideal actress to play Eva.

23.12.2012: Lionel Shriver on the mother of Adam Lanza, Nancy Lanza: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/23/no-tears-nancy-lanza-newtown-mother

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