We Need to Talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver

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We Need to Talk about Kevin won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005.

It is an incredibly powerful book in which the narrator, Eva, describes the events in her life leading up to the day her son went on a killing spree at his high school.

The book deals with one of the few remaining taboos in our society: a mother, who doesn’t like her own child. She feels invaded by pregnancy, and before her son is even born she is scared of him:

….any woman who passes a clump of testosterone-drunk punks without picking up the pace, without avoiding eye contact that might connote challenge or invitation, without sighing inwardly with relief by the following block, is a zoological fool. A boy is a dangerous animal.

Once her son, Kevin, is born he is a difficult baby. He cries constantly and Eva becomes more and more alienated by him. He grows into a difficult toddler and Eva slowly loses control of him.

Having done much research on ‘spirited’ children, I did, however, feel that some of Kevin’s behaviour was unrealistic. A single child would not have displayed the strange mixture of reactions that Kevin did.

Eva is also supposed to be a powerful, high flying business woman, who must be of reasonable intelligence, so I find it hard to believe that she would accept things the way they were, and make no attempt to find solutions to her problem. She is rich enough to be able to employ any number of psychologists, or even just read a few books on the subject. I don’t really understand why she failed to do this.

Despite these minor flaws, this book was a great read. It was very thought provoking, and would be perfect for a reading group, as there are so many discussions that arise from it. Are all children sweet, innocent things, or are some born evil?

I couldn’t see how anyone could claim to love children in the generic anymore than any one could credibly claim to love people in a sufficiently sweeping sense as to embrace Pol Pot, Don Rickles, and an upstairs neighbour who does 2,000 jumping jacks at three in the morning.

And how much of a child’s actions can the parent be held accountable for?

When you’re the parent, no matter what the accident, no matter how far away you were at the time and how seemingly powerless to avert it, a child’s misfortune feels like your fault.

This a very important book, especially for new parents. It will remain with me for a long time, and I will be encouraging all my friends to read it – just so I can talk about it!

Highly recommended. Especially for reading groups.

Edit June 2011: Rating increased to after realising this is one of my all-time favourite books.


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11 Comments

  1. Sandy says:

    First, I must say that one of my favorite books of all times is one by Lionel Shriver called “The Post Birthday World”. Her writing is incredible, her sense of humor and irony is equally as good. The topic of this book seems disturbing, although I know that I must read it. Aren’t most kids (with a few exceptions) difficult at one point or the other? Mine drive me to drink on a weekly basis, especially with puberty staring us in the face, but as parents we work hard to do what is best. The million dollar question is whether we have any role in how they turn out? Are we responsible for their actions? I have nightmares thinking about it! I’d say we play a huge role in how they turn out. Trouble is, it is very easy to spot the issues in other families whose children have gone awry, but it isn’t always the easiest thing to analyze yourself.

  2. Joy says:

    Oh yay! I’m happy to see that you gave this such a high rating (like I have seen in most reviews!). I have it on my TBR shelf and hope to get to it this year. Your post has encouraged me to get to it sooner, rather than later. :)

  3. Jackie says:

    This is the first book by her that I have read. As you say, Sandy, her writing is incredible, so I will be reading everything else she has written as soon as I get my hands on it! I’m sure that as parents we have a huge influence in the way they turn out, and I feel really guilty whenever my children exhibit anti-social behaviour. My oldest son (he’s only 3!) is a ‘spirited’ child, and it took a lot of effort to turn him into the well behaved boy he is today (well most of the time!)

    I experienced many of the emotions Eva described in the book, although to a lesser extent, and for a shorter duration. There were times when although I loved my son deeply, I didn’t like him at all!

    I was very aware, as is Eva in the book, that my child was exhibiting unacceptable behaviour. That is why I cannot understand why she did not do everything within her power to turn things around.

  4. Beth F says:

    Hummm. Great review — it’s given me lots to to think about. I may have to look into the book. I have two girlfriends who struggle with motherhood, so I’d like to see the perspective offered in this novel.

  5. Dorte H says:

    This book sounds scary, especially because it is based on a true story. Having read your review I cannot help thinking of Doris Lessing´s wonderful novel, “The Fifth Child”. It is purely fictional, but she really foresaw young people running wild back then (in the 1980s, as far as I remember). Her descriptions of the boy, Ben, sounds much like Kevin but at the same time Lessing clearly sees him as a symbol of the time & society she lived in.

  6. DebD says:

    great review. This sounds like a very difficult book to read, especially as a mother. But, I am intrigued by your high praise of the book. I may just have to pick it up and check it out myself.

  7. Lenore says:

    I read this last year and it was one of my best reads of 2008.

    Here’s a link to my review in case you are interested:

    http://presentinglenore.blogspot.com/2008/05/book-review-we-need-to-talk-about-kevin.html

  8. Carrie K. says:

    I enjoyed Shriver’s Post-Birthday World last year, and have been meaning to read this one ever since. Thanks for the great review.

  9. Jennifer says:

    I enjoyed reading your review. I read this book last year (I think!) and I enjoyed it too. Very disturbing, but thought provoking. I didn’t realize how much I liked the book until I started to consider how much I’m still thinking about it all these months later.

    I agree that it would be a good book club pick.

  10. Geraldine says:

    I thought this book was superb. I tried to start it several times over the course of a couple of years and could never quite get into it. It was always one of those ones you pass over on the shelf…! Then one day I thought to myself that I had to get into it. And was I glad I did!

    I do not have any children of my own but I’m a teacher and have seen my fair share of difficult children. I also took Psychology for my degree so I am fascinated by all things psychological!

    I found Kevin and his mother to be fascinating characters and I can only describe this book as ‘Unputdowable’! Not wanting to give anything away, but I found the end of the book fantastic. Literally jaw-dropping stuff!!

    If you are umming and arring I would say plough in and be shocked!!

    Great reading…

    1. Jackie says:

      Geraldine, I agree – this book was fantastic! There is so much to think about/discuss – I could talk about it for hours!

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