We need to talk about “We need to talk about Kevin”

One of the most thought-provoking books that I have ever read is Lionel Shriver’s “We need to talk about Kevin”. I can’t imagine that fifty years ago it would have dared to be published, let alone win the Orange Prize for Literature.

So it’s a credit to today’s more candid society that Shriver could have written a book about a parent-child relationship that isn’t total bliss. Whilst the novel is described as taboo-breaking, gutsy and startling, which means that most people would have had some reservations about the theme of not really liking one’s child, the author has excused herself to some extent by making her child a sort of Damien Omen character and that is a kind of cop-out, in my opinion.

What I mean by that is that Eva, the narrator, rationalises her distaste for her son by having him commit a terrible atrocity along the lines of the Columbine High killings. She never liked him anyway and now she can say “well, no wonder I never bonded cause he was a potential killer.”

The question that this novel asks, of course, is whether Kevin would have turned into a murderer if his mother had loved him. It’s the question that all mothers ask themselves. If he has turned out to be less than she would have liked, was it anything that she did? Could she have done anything to prevent him turning into a killer?

As one of the characters in “We need to talk about Kevin” says:-

It’s always the mother’s fault, ain’ it…That boy turn out bad cause his mama a drunk, or she a junkie. She let him run wild, she don’t teach him right from wrong. She never home when he back from school. Nobody ever say his daddy a drunk, or his daddy not home after school. And nobody ever say they some kids just damned mean. Don’t you believe that old guff. Don’t you let them saddle you with all that killing.

Basically this would seem to be the main theme of the novel, is it nature or nurture? Not that there is a simplistic answer to that question since human beings are much more complicated than that. Anyway, it’s not a given that “good and devoted parents” give birth and bring up good children. Also, how many times have we heard about so-called lousy parents having amazingly marvellous children, which would support the nature argument. That is, if one could dismiss the genetic impact of lousy parents.

One could discuss this topic forever and still keep going round in circles.

What was interesting about the novel is how blind Kevin’s father was to his son’s manipulating character, but on the other hand, children do treat parents differently and play one off against the other. I found Franklin to be a very silly man, a bit like David Hicks’ father. David Hicks is the fool who trained with Al Qaeda in the hope of fighting against Americans. His father has decided that David is a scapegoat and has been working hard to turn him into some sort of hero. Whatever Hicks is, he is no hero. The only thing that Hicks deserved was an earlier trial than he received, but it is wrong to ignore one child’s faults and one can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Or can one?

Similarly, Franklin dismissed his wife’s misgivings about Kevin’s sadistic nature and in the end he paid the price for being blind to his faults.

I must admit that I was taken aback when Eva, the narrator, decided to have another child. Perhaps she wanted to make up for her original disappointment and perhaps she was trying to prove that she could produce a nice child, after all. Eva also said that it would be good for Kevin to have a sibling. Hard to understand why when he seemed to hate everything and would no doubt hate his brother or sister. Not surprisingly that turned out to be a dismal failure too. Besides, the second child seemed so implausible and was perhaps meant to act as a foil for the demonic Kevin.

If there is a lesson to be learned from “We need to talk about Kevin” it’s that having a child is one of the biggest risks one can take in life. There are no guarantees that we will like the child or that the child will like his parents. If we do it because we feel we should, or it’s about time, or we are bored with our life, we should seriously consider that we may be buying grief. It may be a fulfilling experience or it may not.

If it’s not nature or nurture, it may very well be the luck of the draw, with the highest stakes in the world.


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