We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is an epistolary novel from the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian, who is writing to her apparently estranged husband Franklin. We know from the very beginning that she is writing to her husband following an unimaginable event; her son Kevin has committed a mass shooting at his high school, killing students and teachers alike. Her letters explore a fundamental question; to what extent is she to blame her sons actions?

Eva is a happy and intelligent woman. She runs a successful business writing and selling budget travel guides, a job that allows her to travel the world on a regular basis. She is a Democrat, left wing and very suspicious of American patriotism. Strangely enough, she falls in love with Franklin, an entirely stereotypical American male who votes Republican, likes his sport and loves his country unconditionally. In Eva's earlier letters, she explores why it is they decided to have children when they were happy without them. For Franklin, children are the answer to "the big question". Eva has no such view. In the end, it feels as if Eva decides to have children more to prove something to herself and to society than out of any genuine desire.

They decide to have children and Kevin is the result. From the very beginning Kevin exhibits malicious behaviour; he throws unusual tantrums, he is not interested in any activities and his speech, motor and toilet skills appear to be deliberately delayed. Throughout his childhood Kevin is implicated in many anti-social incidents; children breaking things at play school, a young girl mutilating herself, bike accidents, bullying and brick throwing. Significantly, he is also suspected (by Eva) of having some involvement with a serious incident that befalls his younger sister Celia that sees her disabled for the rest of her life.

Eva is always suspicious of Kevin's motivations, indeed she has been since his birth from the moment that he refused to be breastfed. She is never able to think of his as being innocent of misbehaviour and instead over time she becomes locked in a power struggle with him, never able to love or trust him. This is effectively contrasted with Franklin's attitude toward Kevin. He loves Kevin unconditionally and always gives him the benefit of the doubt.

As it turns out, Eva's instincts were correct, but was it Eva's attitude that created this psychopathic Kevin?

The murder itself is so chillingly told I could barely bear to read it. The tension was such that I almost felt compelled to pace around the room as I was reading it. The twist in relation to the shootings and the twist that follows were so horrific that I could barely contain my horror and revulsion in order to finish reading the book.

I don't have an opinion as to who, if anyone, was responsible for Kevin's actions. But in exploring her own culpability, I thought that Eva was a thoroughly believable character. I don't mean to suggest that we can believe everything she has to say. The entire story is told from her perspective, and given her motive in telling the story seems to be to explore her own role in the disaster, we cannot entirely trust her perspective as being completely accurate. What I mean is that I think her character was very true to life. She was honest about her feelings and perspective on things. This meant that she wasn't always likable, but it was satisfying to see someone be truly honest about what they feel, even if it meant saying those things that you are not meant to say. This is what made her a believable character.

This book explores those deeper issues that people are sometimes to scared to really deal with. Issues like the nature vs nurture debate, the nature of evil, the culpability of society for individuals actions and the responsibilities of parenthood and the assumption that it is for everyone.

This is the most disturbing novel I have ever read. I have definitely never had such a strong reaction to a novel before. I couldn't say that it will become a favourite book, it is far too disturbing and depressing for that. I will, however, dare to suggest that it is perhaps one of the best novels I have ever read.


What kind of read is this?
Dark. Depressing. Disturbing. Emotionally challenging.

Do I recommend this book?
Yes I do, despite how horrible the story itself is. Sometimes we need to challenge ourselves emotionally and give thought to those issues that are too scary to otherwise think about. We are all responsible to each other, and I think that is an important lesson contained in this book.

Do I recommend that you buy this book?
Although I won't be re-reading it any time soon, I definitely recommend that you buy it, if only to remind yourself of your reading experience.

Star Rating

8 / 8

One of the best books I have ever read.

* Originally posted on 6 July 2010. Re-posted as part of the Full Marks series *


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