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Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

 Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

 

Eva Khatchadourian is ambivalent on the notion of children: she fears the curtailing of her life and career, and the mind-numbing spiral into a world of baby-talk and mushy foods. But yet, Eva has always wanted something more out of her life than what it has offered up to her from its platter of banality. The anguish she experienced at her tenth birthday party stemmed not from the fact that her mother didn’t make an effort, but rather that she did, and the result failed to transcend the puerile, the day to day.

For Eva, the decision to have a child emerges from an existential haze that is slowly descending on her to blinding effect. The birth of a child is seen in society as something transcendental, a way of establishing oneself as a member of a club that has bragging rights to its very existence: it is, perhaps, Eva thinks desperately, a way of escaping those endless barriers and manacles of daily life. But her romantic designs are soon humbled when she learns that pregnancy and motherhood are perhaps, in reality, as she has suspected, poisonous carrots dangled in front of dreamy, worldly women in order to entice them into a club of behavioural manipulation, and to narrow their sphere of existence rather than blowing it wide open.

Eva, the owner of a shoe-string travel guidebook company, whose very spiritual nourishment comes from the unique mixture of fear and delight of travelling abroad and who bathes in other cultures as a way of cleansing herself of her very Americanness–something she loathes enough that she flies the flag of her Armenian background wherever possible–sees having a child as, perhaps, a journey into those most unrelatable, challengingly foreign vistas. But rather, she finds motherhood draws a rather terrible parallel with a trip she takes to Africa not long after her son is born: everything is too much this way or that way; there is no comfort to be found; the available paths for the hapless tourist are few, and the desire to venture beyond these carefully delineated tour-guided areas can, so very readily, end in disaster. And if this does indeed happen, it’s your own fault.

“Although the infertile are entitled to sour grapes, it’s against the rules, isn’t it, to actually have a baby and spend time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn’t,” muses Eva retrospectively, as she writes to her husband in the wake of what we learn is a multiple homicide committed by her teenage son Kevin. “But a Pandoran perversity draws me to prise open what is forbidden. I have an imagination, and I like to dare myself.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin is constructed in epistolary format, taking the form of a series of lengthy letters written by Eva as she contrasts her present situation with that of the past, slowly working her way towards the inexorable school shooting incident. In her brutally honest, unflinching manner, she carefully excavates the emotional artefacts of her past, carefully cataloguing and describing them, and as archaeologists do, ascribing a sense of narrative and purpose to them. Kevin is a novel that has famously divided its readers into two camps: those who put Kevin Khatchadourian’s actions down to an innate evil, and those who skewer Eva for her conflicted approach to parenthood, and even the conflicted manner in which she identifies as a parent: the precocious Kevin, from an early age, seems to catch on to this, calling Eva “Mommer”, a term that she readily goes along with.

Such small details, however, exist alongside larger ones across the identity and experience of Eva, and there are numerous instances of Eva settling in situations that are less than ideal, and others where she seems to seek out the terrible out of a desire for self-flagellation. She speaks of rough sex in the bedroom; marries a man who is the veritable opposite of the man that she thought that she would end up with–indeed, her husband is, in my mind at least, a blindly sexist man who is so wrapped up in his own entitlement that he scarcely sees Eva as a person–; gives up her body and autonomy throughout and indeed after a pregnancy; sacrifices her career in order to align with pressing societal expectation, nevermind that she is the CEO of a successful business, while her husband is a mere location scout; and meekly backs down when her husband purchases a vast suburban McMansion that is the antithesis of the home that Eva has always wanted.

It’s perhaps prescient, then, that Eva demands that her son should take her surname, so that she might have something upon which she is allowed to make her mark. Admittedly, though she only succeeds in her efforts after a good deal of protestation on her husband’s behalf, and her coup is only managed after evoking the Armenian genocide as an argument in its favour. The venom oozing from this scene, and the claim that she tries to makes of her son, provides an interesting contrast to Eva’s later matter-of-fact comment of her “approach to parenthood being conditional…the conditions strict.” She goes on to note that perhaps, rather than testing for deformities, the doctor in charge of her amniocentesis might have tested for “malice, for spiteful indifference, for congenital meanness.” The implication is, of course, that Eva may be aware that she carries these very transgressive genes.

I do wonder whether these qualities had been found that Eva would have acted on them: indeed, the very unqualified nature of the passage suggests to me that Kevin’s nature is something that Eva simultaneously despises and admires, largely because Kevin is so very much Eva, but without the fetters of being born female: “I learnt from the best,” Kevin says at one point. We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a simple study of nature versus nurture, but it is also one of identity, projection of self, and of the reconstructive nature of prose. Eva has lived a life of the boundaries and limitations that are impressed from every angle on women, and especially on those women who choose to walk amongst the child-bearing mainstream. Her escapes overseas are a leap for oxygen after spending so long in the airless void of the dank depths of anti-intellectual consumerist America, but every effort to rail against the pressures of the cultural amniotic sac that surrounds her is stymied by cultural norms and the constantly evoked concept of “tradition”. If it is even noticed in the first place. Eva, then, is a victim of anti-feminist expectation, and she is, quite conceivably, angry about it.

In a world where women are tolerated under a guise of equality, it’s little surprise that Eva finds herself struggling for a voice. And one way of having another opportunity to speak is through having a child. “In a way you get to do everything twice,” she says. “Even if our kid had problems at least they wouldn’t be our same own problems.” But, despite this, Kevin’s constant, endless misdemeanours go all but unnoticed: Eva’s husband either turns a blind eye to his son’s behaviour, or fails to notice it at all. “You never do [see anything wrong],” mutters Eva darkly at one point, simmering with the frustration of her desperation, and indeed Kevin’s own–for Kevin is an extension of Eva, of course–going unnoticed. “For you he was ‘our son’,” she notes in one of her letters to her husband. “There was a persistently generic character to your adoration that I’m certain he sensed.”

For me, the constant battle between Eva and Kevin is that Kevin is as much as symbol as he is a character: he is Eva’s anger and frustration made manifest, the very embodiment of her own sense of uselessness and the focus of her country on the pithy, the trivial, the ephemeral. Kevin’s atrocious final act is, in a way, a violent interpretation of Eva’s own desperation, and perhaps something that means far more to her than it does to him. “So he is resentful,” she says at one point. “And I don’t blame him for being bored with his own atrocity already, or for envying others their capacity to abandon it.” And yet, Eva, though she ostensibly abhors his actions, sets about reliving them and the compounding moments of transgression that lead up to this final protest.

“As far as I can tell, it was War on Weirdos,” she says of the increased vigilance surrounding a series of copycat school shootings. “But I identified with weirdos…Were I a student at Gladstone High in 1998, I’d surely have written some shocking fantasy…about putting my forlorn family out of its misery…or in a civics project on “diversity” the gruesome detail in which I recounted the Armenian genocide would betray an unhealthy fascination with violence.”

In fact, given the distanced nature afforded by the book’s epistolary format, it’s not inconceivable that Kevin is not just a vessel for Eva’s ever-growing disillusionment: I can’t help but feel that her earlier admission to wanting to “prise open what is forbidden” suggests that what we are reading may not necessarily be the truth at all, and that we may indeed be reading an imagined narrative. How much of Eva’s account is veracious, and how much is sheer imagination–a protest on paper, in the non-violent manner that Eva has spent her adult years preaching? “His silence seemed to confront me with a miniature version of my own dissembling,” she says at one point. “If I found our son’s visage too shrewd and contained, the same shifty mask of opacity stared back at me when I brushed my teeth.” And perhaps, then, there’s more to Eva’s husband’s simple statement: “The answer, if there is one, is the parents.”

For someone who eschews violence and seeks protest through other means, is it so unlikely that a woman who has striven all of her life for a voice might do so through the page, through that very medium that has allowed her to forge her career and to reflect? (Or, perhaps, if Kevin is indeed the stuff of the real world, through a third party who has all the benefits of being a white male at his fingertips?) Moreover, the letter format of the novel is adamantly one-sided, meaning that response and recourse is not possible: perhaps the non-responses to Eva’s letters have rather less to do with the fact that the person to whom she is writing is dead, but rather that for all we know he might not have existed in the first place. There is a certain truth in madness, and though Eva’s account is achingly lucid, it is difficult to determine where recollection is replaced with projection, and to me Eva and Kevin become very much one another, with the difference being that one lives in a world of non-actualised protest, while the other makes a statement so overt it cannot be ignored.

The Gordian connectedness of Eva and her son and their nihilistic outlooks is perhaps most clearly illustrated when Eva asks her son what he did what he did, and Kevin answers with, “I thought I knew. But I’m not so sure any more.” And it’s this endless ambiguity that is what make this such a brilliant, haunting read.

Rating: star Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriverstar Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriverstar Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriverstar Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriverstar Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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15 comments

  1. Wow, the idea that she invented Kevin and/or her husband is such an interesting take on it. I haven’t read the book yet, only seen the movie, and I feel like it must have a very different focus. It’s interesting the idea of a child limiting a woman’s world rather than expanding it. I’m not sure I agree with that. Also for someone who is so frustrated and afraid of being contained, Eva seems to go along with so much that she doesn’t want.

    • Stephanie /

      I think I’m in a sceptical mindset after reading The Glamour–I have no idea what’s real any more!

      The movie is actually very similar to the book, but there’s obviously a lot of nuance and internal narrative that can be got across more readily in a book than in a film. Eva is a very confusing and conflicted character: I think often she goes along with things in a way to punish herself, and sometimes, perhaps, out of a sense of martyrdom as well, but there’s definitely a need to fit in with the “safety” of normativity as well.

      The child as limitation is alluded to in a few instances, but it’s probably most evident at Kevin’s birth, when Eva is waiting for that moment of transcendent truth that everyone speaks of…but finds nothing. She feels cheated almost, rather like how Kevin seems to feel cheated at having to exist at all. This definitely colours their relationship, I think, although it’s not as simple as just tossing the whole “nature vs nurture” thing around.

      I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while yet, I think!

  2. This is a fascinating book.

    I have to say, though, that many times, as I read her introspection, I thought she was too hard on herself. I love my child more than I knew I could love – but in the early days, that transcendant feeling that others talk about was often elusive for me, too.

    I couldn’t help wondering, as I read, if she had expected less of herself, she would have experienced more. I think that we have romanticised motherhood in much the way we have romaticised marriage – made it into something that is supposed to make everything wonderful all the time. That’s bull and believing it can make you crazy. And possibly your child, which is one of the many interesting questions posed by this book.

    It’s a brilliant piece of writing and the many different interpretations it lends itself too is just proof.

    • Stephanie /

      It really is a remarkable book, and I can see why there’s been so much discussion about it.

      I think the discussion about parenthood not being the angels-and-harps thing of enlightenment everyone seems to tell us that it is is a really valid one. There was another author a few years ago who dared to say that she was often bored when pushing her kid on the swings, or when having conversations with a toddler, and everyone leapt on her, calling her a terrible mother who should cherish every moment with her child. I don’t doubt that parenthood has its amazing moments, but there is so much of this sort of punishment and guilt going around.

      I think this book touches on this very thing, and takes it to an absolute extreme in order that the notion of parental guilt and identity might be discussed–there’s such a taboo around not enjoying parenthood, or finding it tough, or not coping.

  3. Great review with some interesting thoughts on this book. Glad you enjoyed it so much

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Michael! I’m utterly chilled by it, to be honest. I saw the movie last year, and I’ve been haunted by it ever since, so I’ve been dying to get my teeth into it. The day I borrowed a copy from my friend turned out to be the day of the Aurora shooting, and I thought, my goodness, I just can’t read this now. But then, in the wake of the Sikh shooting, I realised how much these issues are a part of American life. Not just the shootings themselves, but the type of culture that exists around them and the factors that make these things possible.

      • You saw the movie before the book?!

        Shocked! :p

        I have yet to see the movie, but love the book. I also never thought of Kevin as a possible imaginary creation of Eva – that’s brilliant.

        • Stephanie /

          I know, I know, the shame! But so did Breanna, if that helps strengthen my case. ;) The movie is excellent, actually, and Tilda Swinton is a very believable Eva.

          My obsession with false and imaginary narratives is due to The Glamour by Christopher Priest, a book that’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.

  4. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for some time now and I haven’t seen any reviews for it on any of the blogs I follow. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Will definitely pick it up now!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Zara! It’s quite an old book now–about ten years old, I think–which might be why it’s not being reviewed so much any more. It’s a very dark and often painful read, but I’m amazed by how much I identified and sympathised with Eva, even though she’s not the most likeable of protagonists.

  5. I read this first not long before my son was born and remember being terrified.
    Fabulous insights as always Stephanie

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Shelleyrae! I’m terrified at the idea of having kids now!

  6. I just LOVE this book. Shriver’s writing is so amazing. (If only I could write like that!) The family never existed?? Now you’re just playin’ with me. I never thought of that one.

    Just realised what ‘Vintage RISS’ means on your Twitter. That is great. You did the hard work for me ;)

    • Stephanie /

      Hi Sonia, thanks for stopping by! I’m going to pop by your site in a sec to see your thoughts on Kevin as well–it’s certainly thought-provoking read. I’ve read quite a few books with unreliable narrators this year, and for me this one had a similar feel/tone, so I suppose that’s why I came up with my “Kevin as a construction” thing. :)

  7. Wow! After reading your review as well as the comments, this book goes right to the top of my to read list!

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