Columbine, 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.
“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”
Almost 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 takes 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.
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.
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