WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver

Shriver-We-Need-to-Talk-About-Kevin-pbColumbine, Santana, Pocatello, Virginia Tech … 10 years after its publication and this novel remains as controversial and potent as ever, its distressing subject matter still relevant after the recent events in Sparks, Nevada and Sandy Hook Elementary School last year. An epistolary novel, told in the aftermath of a high school killing spree, it makes deft use of thriller conventions but casts its net wide, looking for answers beyond the mundane and the obvious.

I submit the following review for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for links to other participants’ reviews.

“This is the one place in the world where the ramifications of my life are fully felt, and it’s far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood”

This long but absorbing novel is told as a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin, from whom she is now separated, written over a five-month period (the relevance of the dates will only become clear only at the conclusion). Slowly we learn that their teenage son Kevin has been responsible for a notorious killing spree at his school and that he is now in prison and that Eva was sued in civil court for having somehow contributed to his actions. Shriver is very canny in the parceling out of information, which keeps us interested in the plot, but this as much a character study as a reflection on the aspirations and mores of middle-class America during the 1980s and 90s. Eva used to run her own company, A Wing and A Prayer (AWAP), producing travel guide books that are a cross between Lonely Planet, Rough Guides (and the ‘Armchair Traveller’ series in Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist). She is smart, intelligent, thinks of herself as liberal and a free spirit, is fiercely independent and highly critical of the US under Reagan and its isolationist policies. In many ways she behaves more as a European than a US citizen,  quietly proud of her Armenian background though she herself had a difficult home life having to cope with her mother’s increasing agoraphobia. Travelling the world for her guides, she always returns home however and is in fact deeply devoted to her husband, who unlike her is much more conservative (politically and socially). Feeling that she might be starting to lose Franklin she decides on a baby for perhaps not the best of reasons and remains uneasy about the pregnancy. Once Kevin is born she immediately feels completely rejected by him even though she insists that he take her family name, Khatchadourian.

“I couldn’t bear the subtle mistrust that was building between us when your experience of our son didn’t square with mine”

Kevin-hcAlmost from the start, she comes to believe that there is something not right about her son (he screams constantly as a toddler and for years refuses to be potty trained), and eventually this grows into the belief that there may something even sinister in his lack of empathy though he appears, medically, to be completely normal. The novel asks us to consider wow much is this might be attributable to some form of postpartum depression and Eva’s own remoteness as a mother. While we come to see Kevin as a dark, even malicious character from fairly early on, we also have to consider Eva’s own sense of distance and from the traditional American life that Franklin wants them to have and the impact this might have on her son, and her storytelling.

“Kevin had proved defective, and I was the manufacturer.”

She hates the house Franklin chooses for them, abhors the social niceties, minor hypocrisies and petty conventions of affluent life – and becomes ever more critical and isolated from her surroundings. In addition, as Franklin rejects all suggestions that there is anything wrong with Kevin despite several nannies fleeing their home and later many ‘incidents’ at school, her fears about their son become more and more secret. She comes to believe that Kevin, who does the bare minimum academically though is clearly bright and who shuns friendship but instead acquires weaker stooges to do his bidding, puts on an act with his father while is himself with her in his almost complete antipathy.

“Kevin was a shell game in which all three cups were empty.”

This is also a very funny book at times, albeit in a very black way – while on the one hand it exploits every parent’s worst nightmare about the intransigence, guilt and emotional turmoil involved in bringing up a ‘difficult’ teenager, Kevin is also a very smart cookie. The scenes in which he turns the tables on his parents and catches them out in their own prejudices and preconceptions, while painful, are also very funny and one that any parents of a fifteen-year-old will probably recognise in some form. One scene, in which she Kevin-sttakes one of his floppy discs to see what he’s up to on his computer and manages to give her entire office a crippling computer virus is hilarious but also leads to one of the few moments on which she really seems to communicate with her son – another is the odd sequence in which he becomes seriously ill and suddenly becomes a ‘normal’ boy, desirous of comfort and without any of his usual abrasive manner. He is much nicer to his mother but rejects Franklin – she thinks this means that with his guard down he just hasn’t got the energy to keep pretending with his father while he keeps being straight with his mother albeit without the resistance that he usually deploys to keep her away. Is this the case? I’m not sure myself but it’s a standout moment. But then, well, then comes the horror.

“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 is a very, very dark story – we learn that Kevin killed nine students and staff at the school and this inevitably hangs heavily over the narrative as we move ever closer to the dreaded ‘Thursday’ as Eva comments on the many other killing sprees that took place in the US during those years. When we get there, Shriver spares us nothing as we experience the full horror of his actions and the devastation that this will bring on Eva. This is a brave and challenging book, not for the faint of heart perhaps, but an extraordinary achievement both in terms of theme but also for its construction. Not only for the way that it does in fact play tricks on the readers (there are several nasty twists at the end) but for the way that it refuses to take sides and plump for an easy answer for what made Kevin do what he did and who was really responsible. The ending, for its appalling fury, also has a heartbreaking tenderness to it – you won’t forget it, no matter what you make of it.

We-Need-to-Talk-About-Kevin

In 2011 it was filmed by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay with Tilda Swinton as Eva, John C. Reilly as Franklin and Ezra Miller as the older Kevin. It is a bold movie, one that dispenses with much from the novel and adds a great deal. Gone completely is the letters format entirely (no voiceover either) and much of the party political diatribe has been dispensed with, making much less of the political differences between Eva and Franklin. We also ditch the references to the other school killings from real-life that get name-checked throughout Shriver’s book. Instead we are treated to powerful explosions of colour to reflect the emotions of the story. It begins with Eva ecstatic on a trip to Spain, revelling in the excesses of ‘La Tomatina’, the celebrated festival in which people drench themselves in tomatoes. Red becomes very much the dominant colour here, from the paint thrown at Eva’s house after the tragedy to the filling of Kevin’s white bread sandwiches, which may seem unsubtle but does in fact work quite well. What we are presented with is a collage style story, an impressionistic sensory take on the impact on Eva of the ‘massacre’ and its repercussions, especially as the event is (thankfully) not shown in any explicit detail.

We-Need-to-Talk-About-Kevin

The film instead tries to explore the psychological underpinnings rather than visceral unpleasantness of the story, looking at the extent to which Kevin has come to embody both Eva’s fears about humanity and her own worst instincts and feelings as a person and a mother. He is very clearly here a specular version of herself – which is clear from the novel but crystallised beautifully in the film. not least because the two actors are made to look very alike Swinton is terrific casting though John C. Reilly somehow seems quite different from how I saw the character of Franklin in the book, seemingly too relaxed and down-to-earth compared with the Franklin that Eva presents us with. The film however follows the book’s story very faithfully, with the same beginning, middle and end. Structurally we follow several intersecting timelines as we see Eva reliving her past in fragmentary fashion – the point of view is hers, clearly, but necessarily filtered by the movie medium which wisely provides great augmentation thorough its rich visual and aural design.

It’s a fascinating example where, unusually for me at least, I would say it is maybe better to see the film first and then read the book if you are planning to do both. Yes, you’ll miss out on some of the shocks and surprises that Shriver springs on you at the end when we realise quite how much Eva has been withholding from us – but the two do compliment each other very well as the film does fill in the audio and visual blanks that are so specifically lacking in Eva’s letters which are almost completely devoid of description. Equally, the mass of additional detail from the book expands on the film without really taking anything away. I do prefer the book but the film does add greatly to it – if you experience one I think the other is also very much worthy of your time.

DVD Availability: Easy to find on DVD and Blu-ray in a decent no-frills edition.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Producer: Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox, Robert Salerno
Screenplay: Rory Stewart Kinnear and Lynne Ramsay
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Art Direction: Judy Becker
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Ashley Gerasimovich, Polly Adams, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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26 Responses to WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver

  1. Sergio – This really is a powerful story, and I’m glad neither Shriver nor Ramsay ‘pulls punches,’ as the saying goes. I’m by no means a fan of a lot of violence and gore. But I think this is the kind of story that needs to be told in an unflinching way. Oh, and kudos if I may say to Ezra Miller as Kevin in the film. In my opinion, a brilliant job. Thanks for the fine review.

    • Thanks Margot – the book is so ‘internal’ that the two can’t help being very different but are complementary in my view, which is a real bonus. Harrowing stuff, either way.

  2. Colin says:

    Interesting stuff. I’m not familiar with either book or film, I wouldn’t describe myself as the overly sensitive type but the subject matter is somewhat off-putting for me. I’ve no doubt that this is all very well done and not in the least exploitative, still I can’t see myself dipping into either the book or film any time soon.

    • No question Colin – I literally put this one off for nearly 10 years and ended up reading it with a friend of mine who became a father just when it came out and couldn’t face it – so we read it and then sent each other regular updates and then had to have a cathartic phone call at the end. It’s a serious book with important things to say but very bruising along the way, no question, without ever being graphic though.

      • Colin says:

        I can see it being a tough one. I do enjoy (is that actually the right word?) dark stories, but there some phenomena which I simply cannot comprehend and thus tend to steer clear of. Of course that may not be the correct approach. Anyway, I admire your grit for making it through an uncompromising story like this.

  3. Mike says:

    I’ve seen the film but, despite having the book on my shelf for a number of years, never got around to reading it. No very good reason for that and to my regret I gave it away in the end – perhaps another purchase is on the cards because the story is tough going and I would be really interested in seeing how Eva comes across in text-based form.

    As for the film, it gripped me from the start in a really uncomfortable but no less strong way. Tilda Swinton carried it, from the moment early on when she’s slapped hard by someone in the street, apparently for no reason, and you realise (if, like me, you came to it fairly cold) there has to be some horrible revelations to unfold. The sense Eva gets of being watched and judged all the time quickly becomes unsettling and claustrophobic – very very strong work from Swinton.

    It isn’t a film I would rush to watch again, but it’s certainly a powerful one. Great stuff Sergio.

    • Thanks very much Mike, very kind. The book has a huge amount that the film dispenses with, but it is also a very long book whereas the film really does manage to convey much of the same emotion much more succinctly. On the other hand, the apparent lack of emotion on the book does carry the ending just a little but further than the film can – gruelling but I think worthwhile is the assessment for both of these.

  4. Excellent review, Sergio. I wasn’t aware of the book or the film until now. We read about shootings in American schools and on campuses all the time and wonder why the powers-that-be don’t do something about it, especially when the Administration keeps talking about educating and empowering the youth. There is too much of reality in both and as a parent I’m not sure I’d like to read or see the two versions although given a choice I’d rather read the book than watch the film. You can’t go far with your imagination

    • It is a partiicularly appalling subject and I think most parents would think twoce about reading or watching the movie. It is probably not incidental that the author of the book and writers and director of the film are all from outside the US given its critisuq of American gun culture. In the book this is treated head-on in the sense thst Eva is perceived, and sees herself, as being outside of that mainstream and as a kind of ‘other’. It’s not like these things don’t happen elsewhere in the Western world after all (one need only think of the Oslo and Buskerud massacre of 2011 in Norway) but there is something truly American about that phrase, ‘gun culure’. The book explores this in a very complex way – if you ever feel strong enough, I think it would be worth.

  5. Keishon says:

    I’ve heard of this book but just can’t make myself read it. Your review of it was excellent, btw.

  6. TracyK says:

    I find both the book and the movie intriguing but have the same problem, avoiding wanting to read about the topic. Not sure I ever will, but I am glad you reviewed it so I have some idea of what it is like. The more I read your review the more I think the book might be worth it.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words – it is a fascinating novel, mainly about a woman coming to grips with her own sense of what being a mother and having a family and a career really means as supposed to what it should be just by blindly following tradition. The tragedy that her son brings on, and to what extent as a parent she has some or any resposibility, makes for a very unusual focus. But for all its fine writing and fascinating asides on society and politics, in the latter parts of the story it is a distressing book, no question about it.

  7. Rebecca says:

    I remember being blown away by this book when it came out, but I haven’t brought myself to watch the movie even though I love Tilda Swinton. Thanks for such a great review! Oh, and to butt in to the earlier conversation re: Defending Jacob, I think Shriver’s book is much better. I tend to rant about that book, sorry.

    • Thanks Rebecca – if you liked the book then I think you owe it to yourself to see the film if you can. It does add a lot to it (and what it subtracts you already know about as a reader, so for me it was win win really). Must find out more about Jacob – cheers.

  8. Yvette says:

    This is one of your best posts, Sergio. I was enthralled all the while reading it. You are a damn good critic. But I will not be seeing the movie nor reading the book. I can’t, kiddo. I’m too old for this sort of thing. The world is welcome to spin out of control without me. Thank you very much. :)

    • As always Yvette, you are the very kindest of correspondents – and I know exactly what you mean about not wanting to go near Kevin chum. Hell, it took me 10 years to work up the courage!

  9. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  10. Pingback: Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (5/5) One of the darkest and scariest books I’ve ever read. | Taking on a World of Words

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