Now that school shootings are sadly almost commonplace, it is a topic that seems to come up quite a bit in literature as well. In the past few years I’ve read fiction told from a judge/mother of victim’s point of view where the shooter was mercilessly bullied (Jodi Piccoult’s 19 Minutes), a black comedy in which the shooter’s best friend is demonized by the press and stalked by a greasy opportunist cameraman named Lally (DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little), one in which the main character is accused of threatening to shoot up the school (Joyce Carol Oates’ Big Mouth and Ugly Girl) and one in which the first section is narrated by a shooter’s victim from the great beyond (Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus). We Need to Talk About Kevin is a series of letters written by Eva, the mother of school shooter Kevin to her estranged husband.
Lionel Shriver impressed me greatly with “The Post Birthday World” so I knew I wanted to read something else by her. And I was hooked by this knockout second sentence: “But since we’ve been separated, I may most miss 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.”
I don’t want to go too much into plot, except to say that I went in with a minimum knowledge (son shoots up school and mother and father are somehow not together anymore so mother writes letters to him about the son) – and I was continually surprised by the narrative. The novel has been criticized as being “overly literary” (yes there are “big words”) and “implausible” (if truth is stranger than fiction, is this fiction stranger than truth?) but you can’t say it’s predictable.
Many also criticize Eva, saying she’s cold and unsympathetic toward Kevin. I actually quite liked her. She’s articulate, well-travelled and a successful businesswoman. And Kevin (to hear her tell it) is a psychopath from the moment he is born - “disgruntled”, “inert” and with a head that “lolled away in distaste” when offered her breast. And it doesn’t get better from there. He terrorizes fellow children, can’t be punished because nothing interests him, and is antagonistic towards his mother his whole childhood. Oh, and he kills a bunch of his fellow classmates at 15 because he thinks they are annoying.
The story explores the questions: How do you love such a child? Can you even help such a child? Whose fault is it when a child engages in such a violent act despite a normal upbringing? Certainly none of these are easy questions to answer. This would be a great pick for a book club discussion.