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Monday, September 16, 2013

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Harper Perennial, 432 pages, $14.99 (c2003)

As disquieting as We Need to Talk About Kevin is to read, it is compelling once the first page is turned; there is no putting the book down. Each sentence is deliberately crafted and significant, each chapter leads to a dark revelation. 

Lionel Shriver delves deeply into the mind of the mother of a teenaged mass murderer. Eva Khatchadourian's son, Kevin Khatchadourian, killed some of his schoolmates and a teacher, and what, in the end, does this mean to Eva?

Told through a series of letters from Eva to her distant husband and Kevin's father, Franklin Plaskett, Eva's writing traverses the vast psychological distance from before Kevin was born to the present, a year and a half after the killings. Currently, Kevin is in a youth detention facility, a place Eva dutifully visits every couple of weeks. But why does she do so? Her letters reveal that she never liked Kevin. From birth, she found him cold and rejecting. In turn, she muses, it was easy to reciprocate the feelings.

Through the years, Eva and Franklin had ever more divergent parenting programs. In her letters, Eva mourns her inability to reach Kevin on any sort of level. But she also displays how weak her parenting skills are. Franklin has read all the parenting books, Eva none. Kevin is engaging with Franklin; Eva claims that's all gloss and manipulation. 

Through Eva's recollections, Kevin appears disgruntled from birth. He swings from almost ceaseless wailing to stony, malignant silence. And that just covers the first five years! With increasing tension and foreboding, Eva brings the story to the point at which 14-year-old Kevin reaches his crescendo.

We Need is American gothic, a horror story without supernatural fireworks, a chilling, thoroughly discombobulating painting of a family gone scarily awry. Shriver immaculately deals with all the details. If I ever wondered what happened to so-and-so or such-and-such, within a few pages, there would be the answer. As far as I could tell, she never forgot. Although I wanted to hurry through the agonizing pages of Eva's admissions and submissions, it was impossible to skim through Shriver's muscular sentences.

If you decide to venture into Eva's world, my hope for you is that you are as open-mouthed at the end as I was. I was the perfect foil for Shriver, standing placidly on the rug she was about to pull out from under me. Shriver's book is an original.

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