Sunday, February 11, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Lionel Shriver

I almost felt embarrassed and guilty reading this book. It was like invading Eva’s thoughts, shadowing her, being a fly in the wall as her life unfolded. May be that’s the reason I’m reviewing it almost as soon as I'm done reading it. (Usually I let a book linger in my head for almost a week before I hit the review file.)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of Kevin Khatchadourian, a teenager who kills seven of his high school mates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker on a Thursday afternoon (the very reference to the event as just Thursday [always italicized] is chilling). Eva Khatchadourian, the mother (“I work for a travel agency, and my son is a murderer”), writes a series of letters to the father, Franklin Plaskett; these letters form the book.

An epistolatory novel (or any first person narrative, for that matter) runs the risk of becoming a hyperactive exercise in navel-gazing (even if by a fictitious character), but the format and the tone Lionel Shriver manages make Kevin an absolute stunner.

A second risk with the format is that it negates the absence of a second perspective. And especially in a story like this, you’re tempted to understand at least Kevin’s perspective, if not Franklin’s as well. Thankfully, Eva manages to get at least Kevin’s perspective with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Her inability to get close enough to Kevin shines through when she tries to understand him by surreptitiously invading his room and discovering him through the contents of it.

Was this what it looked like inside his head? Or was the room, too, a kind of screen saver? Just add seascape above the bed, and it looked like an unoccupied unit at a Quality Inn. Not a photograph at his bedside, nor keepsake on his bureau—the surfaces were slick and absent. How much I’d have preferred to walk into a hellhole jangling with heavy-metal, lurid with Playboy centerfolds, fetid from muddy sweats, and crusty with year-old tuna sandwiches. That was the kind of no-go teen lair that I understood, where I might discover safe, accessible secrets like a worn Durex packet under the socks or a baggie of cannabis stuffed in the toe of a smelly sneaker. By contrast, the secrets of this room were all about what I could not find, like some trace of my son. Looking around, I thought uneasily, He could be anyone.

The narrative is slick, moving back and forth in time without losing focus, the little nuances are effortless, the self-references unselfconscious even. There’s even the odd touch of humor in the language and expression, which appears spontaneous, relevant, and oddly poignant. And while the twist that comes up later is not particularly unpredictable, it is chilling nevertheless.

We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be a book you want to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon; but it’s a book you don’t want to miss. For the sheer quality of its writing. But be prepared for the heavy heart it will leave you with. It’s an eloquent commentary on the bleakness of life, in the U.S.

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