We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

A series of letters from a woman to her husband, parents of a boy responsible for a massacre at his high school—I half-expected this book to be impossible to read. However, the narrator’s voice drew me in. Her ambivalence about becoming a parent seemed believable. The fact that she made a lot more money than her husband, yet had to be the one to stay home with the baby immediately attracted my sympathy. She seemed like someone I might know, one of my friends, although outside of a novel I probably would have gotten tired of her relentless self-centeredness.

I’m pretty gullible, completely snowed by people in books and in life, so I assume a narrator to be reliable unless overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary. Here there’s not enough evidence either way to decide. Was the mother correct that her son was born bad? Or was the father right that the child was normal but twisted by his mother’s distrust, no, dislike? I always blamed children’s behavior on their parents, until I had kids of my own and saw what strong personalities they had, right from day one. So I could believe either proposition about Kevin.

I know parents—my own mother being a prime example—who believe that all small children are out to get their parents and every interaction is a power struggle. Equally, I know two families where the parents—reasonable and pleasant people—have a child who from birth was at war with society in general and the parents in particular. Since the other kids are reasonable and pleasant, I have to absolve the parents of blame. Of course, one sibling’s upbringing can be very different from another’s.

We can never really know what goes on inside another family. That’s one reason I’m grateful for novels like this one that describe lives I haven’t lived. Even Kevin tugged at my sympathies. His explanation to the reporter for the murders (whether phony—as his mother believed—or not) reminded me of the monologue at the beginning of Trainspotting which also made me see the world a little differently. What seemed most real to me in this book was the way that Kevin was the only one who truly understood his mother.

By the way, those two wayward children I mentioned? Both have come around to having a loving relationship with parents and siblings. So, who knows?

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