A tale, with graceful epistemological digressions
To Eva Khatchadourian, motherhood is "a foreign country". One can hardly ignore the allusion which begs the question: how differently do they do things there?
Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005. The novel deals with the peculiarly western phenomenon of school shootings. This theme has been dealt with by other writers (DBC Pierre's phenomenally enjoyable Vernon God Little immediately springs to mind), but not quite from the perspective that Shriver uses.
The story is told by the mother of the mass murderer, Eva Khatchadourian. The tale unfolds through a series of letters she writes to Frank, her absent husband. We're told early on that Kevin, her teenaged son, is in jail for a school shooting where most of his victims were his schoolmates. The very repetitious triteness of the murders lends focus to other themes that Shriver examines: the dark underbelly of motherhood, the gender imbalance extant in (even) modern parenting roles and the concept of "family" the shining palliative. The glowing picture of the new mother gazing at a mewling infant in rapture is the one we're accustomed to. The confusion, no, utter turmoil that a woman undergoes prior to, during and following childbirth, is not something that any of our cultures want to spend too much time pondering. Shriver herself has spoken of "the emotionally prescriptive nature of motherhood" this is what the novel depicts in a slightly exaggerated and unsavoury fashion.
Eva Khatchadourian examines her life through these letters trying to pinpoint the "mistakes" that led to her son's turning into a monster. Her pre-motherhood life was pretty good: good marriage, good career, what else could she want? The tender comfort of marriage exists for her in that period of her life: "…coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards."
It was Frank who wanted to "take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child"; Eva merely acquiesced to his need. From the very birth itself, Eva's unsuitability to be a mother, and especially mother to this particular child, is made apparent. There is no love lost between mother and son from birth onwards, Kevin rejects his mother's breast, is so difficult that unable to find a nanny who lasts, Eva is forced to leave her flourishing business and relocate to the suburbs (which she hates) Kevin consumes her life.
All this Eva treats as Kevin's personal vendetta against her. She sees his behaviour from early childhood as psychologically abnormal. She is convinced that Kevin refuses to potty-train even at six merely to spite her, so that she is forced to the unpleasant task of changing his soiled diapers, that he cut up her business documents on purpose (no innocent childish play is he ever engaged in), as an adolescent he masturbates in front of her and mutilates his own sister out of vengeance and so on. Franklin, on the other hand, seems to belong to the breed of monkeys who neither see, nor hear, nor say any evil. At every point of confrontation he opts to side with his son rather than his wife.
Kevin's aggression, almost from his very birth, seems over the top. Not that there aren't little monsters out there: this is, after all, an age when damaged children walk over the fallen bodies of other children. But Eva's accusations at times seem to border on the hysterical. As an infant, a child and a teenager, Kevin is not allowed a single quality that allows a reader to empathize with him.
Once Eva's daughter is born, an angel child (but then who wouldn't be compared to the devil-spawn that Kevin is?), the Khatchadourian family clearly lines up against each other along the gender divide the girls on one side, the boys on the other. Things are not helped along by the fact that neither parent attempts to conceal their preferences regarding their offspring. They muddle along their lives (which are interspersed by Kevin's various offences) until one Thursday, Kevin takes a crossbow to school.
The idea presented that some women just don't like their children is shocking to a certain extent, fed on the pap of sacred motherhood as we are, but really, does it make monsters of either the mothers or the children? Did Eva's emotional distance from her son create the evil in Kevin? Although ostensibly examining the root causes, Eva herself seems to accept culpability, egged on by everyone around her. Shunned by community (the checkout girl at her supermarket breaks her eggs), abandoned by husband, blamed by her son, she is now being sued by the family of one of Kevin's victims for being a "bad mother" (apparently this actually happened in the wake of the school shootings that seemed to dominate the US media during the 1990s). Eva's letter writing is thus her act of self-flagellation as is her continued harrowing visits to her imprisoned child.
How reliable a narrator is Eva? We are not allowed a point of view other than Eva's, although she generously provides the reader with Franklin's probable responses to her overtures. She is not completely unaware of her side-stepping: "I may be hounded by that why question, but I wonder how hard I've really tried to answer it. I'm not sure that I want to understand Kevin, to find a well within myself so inky that from its depths what he did makes sense. Yet little by little, led kicking and screaming, I grasp the rationality of Thursday." It is these little touches that serve to "humanize" the clinical aridity of the person that Eva is.
In fact, none of the three central characters are much likable. Having likable characters is not a prerequisite for a good novel, of course, but the emotional disconnect that one feels for Eva's self-preoccupied pseudo-analysis, Kevin's sullen dysfunction and Franklin's bluff, uncomprehending bonhomie is unable to be overcome at least for this reader. To be honest: that's also what makes it a powerful book in certain ways.
The problem is not the writing itself: Shriver is a novelist who knows what she's doing. The prose is more than readable and Eva's graceful epistemological digressions pace the novel as the story of what happened gradually unfolds to its inevitable and horrific climax. The problem isn't even that none of the central characters not Eva herself, not Kevin nor his father Franklin arouse much admiration or even sympathy.
The trouble is that although the book blurb says and Eva herself reiterates that this is a search for why what happened happened, at the end of the book the reader is not left with any answers. Pat answers are not expected, but the exploration of the tragedy leaves a lot to be desired. In the end, it is not the "why" but an engagingly presented description of "how" that the novel settles for.
One limitation of the book I cannot discuss without giving away the secret so zealously guarded throughout the narrative. However, Frank's conspicuous absence in the post-murder fallout that Eva keeps on describing is enough to reveal the horrific "twist" that Shriver hoards so carefully: Kevin also murders his father and sister. To be honest, I found this attempt to create mock suspense somehow dishonest towards the reader, especially coming from a novelist who is gifted enough to make the epistolary novel, what is really a contrived fictional form, credible.
Eva's bleak story is presented in such elegant prose that it serves to conceal these limitations. However, the book is ultimately redeemed by the mother and son visits, Eva religiously going to see Kevin as he serves out his time in prison. Here (especially in the final paragraphs) for the first and final time, Kevin seems credible: no longer a storybook ogre, his heart-weary acquiescence to the inevitability of their bond matches the pertinacity of his mother. Here, through shared and acknowledged vulnerability, they seem to become mother and son. It is in these scenes that the heart is finally engaged, that the reader finally realises that the true victims of the story are Kevin and Eva, victims of motherhood.
Shabnam Nadiya writes fiction and has translated Bengali short stories into English.