We need to talk about Kevin (a novel)

Eva Khatchadourian is the mother of a US high school mass murderer. She opens the story of her relationship with her son Kevin when he has been in juvenile detention for about 18 months, during the count of the US Presidential election of 2000. Her reflection takes the form of letters to her husband Franklin, Kevin’s father. She is examining why Kevin killed, looking for the roots of his actions beginning back before he was born, to the decision to have a child, and through his infancy, childhood and teenage years. Is she responsible for Kevin’s murderousness, she is asking.

Lionel Shriver, writing as Eva, probes into many dark moments of mother-child relationships, she identifies many typical childish or teenage behaviours, and imbues them with evil portent, that could arouse parental doubts about even the most loving and co-operative children. She also picks on the potential for a couple to be divided by their children. These are well-observed and fear if not through provoking incidents and patterns. The outing of the possibility that a parent, especially a mother, may not find it easy to love a child is the most discussed aspect of the book. The interview with Lionel Shriver suggests that in this aspect the book is an examination of her own fears of parenthood, which she has never take on.

However, the other aspect of Lionel Shriver’s inspiration seems to have achieved much less attention. High school massacres in the USA are a recent disturbing phenomenon. She is looking for possible explanations for the psyche of the high school mass murdereer as a type, personified by Kevin. Her picture of Kevin as perpetrator of a massacre does not seem to fit the profile shown in Bowling for Columbine – guns and the ready availability of bullets were the common thread there. Kevin does not use a gun. She builds a picture of Kevin as a nihilist. What is the source of Kevin’s nihilism?

A series of possibilities is suggested in the course of the story.

Kevin was born angry. His anger was a cover for sadness, for emptiness, but he refused mother love, certainly mother’s breast. He went on to either lack, or wilfully refuse to show, interest or desire for anything to do with his mother – no food, no toys, no activities. Eva attributed deliberate intent on the part of her baby, to deny her any satisfaction. He ate only when she wasn’t looking. He refused toilet training till the age of 6 when his mother gave violent expression to her anger and frustration. Eva saw Kevin as spiteful and secretive.

Kevin’s father always encouraged Kevin, looked for the best interpretation of his son’s actions, almost never, if ever defined and enforced any limits – typifying a style of parenting, which accepts a boys’ bad behaviour as a legitimate expression of “being a boy”, and so does not socialise them. Kevin actually scorned his father, and went along with Franklin’s rosy view all the better to prepare his crime. Franklin’s lack of comprehension of Kevin actually made Kevin feel more estranged and alienated and angry than his mother’s critical view of him, which at least made him feel partially understood and recognised for who he was and what he really felt. Eva never even asks if Franklin’s fathering of Kevin could have anything to do with Kevin’s criminality. Yet her telling of the story makes this a highy plausible factor. Perhaps the author is trying to illustrate that poor fathering is rarely considered a problem, and that mothers are typically blamed for the misdeeds of their children.

Eva is, or was before the terrible day, a Democrat and liberal (she no longer cares). She had loved travelling overseas, it had been her business. She hated red-necks, US militarism, US suburban life, and Republicanism. Strangely though, Franklin was an ardent Republican. Most strangely Eva gave up work altogether to look after Kevin, and Franklin continued an absolutely full-time job and took no share of domestic duties. This second aspect of her marriage seems highly improbable, if not necessarily in the earliest years, at least as it became apparent that Eva was struggling and did not enjoy Kevin, whereas Franklin thought Kevin was fantastic.

Kevin rejected the hypocrisy of his mother’s liberalism, and her anti-Americanism. He rejected her supposed liberal tolerance, yet her intolerance, constant criticism of US culture (and him). This shows another strange inconsistency. As a political liberal, Eva could be expected to be the parent to excuse childhood misdeeds, and fail to discipline, whereas the Republican father could be expected to be tougher on law and order outside and inside the home. Eva wants to hold Kevin responsibile for his criminality (or in hindsight, his predictive criminal tendencies) whereas it would more typically be the liberal (in US terms) who might seek to explain, if not justify and exonerate social deviance, on the grounds of nurture by a sick society. When Eva reflects on her own nurturing role, or lack thereof, and really can only see that for Kevin it was in his nature to be bad. So, the introduction of Democratic versus Republican into this novel seems off the mark.

Yet, in a way perhaps Democratic versus Republicans illustrates an aspect of Kevin’s nihilism. There is no real substance to that choice, or any other on offer to the comfortable for the well-off, middle-class of the USA. There is only meaningless repetition of meaningless routines. Kevin could not see any point, any purpose, felt no passion. He was actually very perceptive and intelligent, but found no worthwhile application for his capabilities, until he came to plan his crime.

Lack of love is the other possible explanation of Kevin. Eva made rare efforts to show and feel affection for Kevin, and apart from a few days when he was very sick in his later childhood, he always spurned her, as she saw it. Perhaps Kevin was not a very lovable or responsive infant, and we and Eva only have Eva’s recollection to go on. Eva seemed to feel that Franklin was acting out a fatherly role rather than genuinely connecting with Kevin, so there was not real love there either. Small signs emerge as the story matures, that Kevin felt a stronger bond with his mother than she might have realised, and her growing realisation of this bond is at the centre of the resolution of the book. Perhaps it is possible in some way to love your own child, even if he has done something very evil, and perhaps love is a kind of antidote.

I found the book gripping but gruelling. If it’s meant to air the unspoken truth that mothers don’t always love or like their children, this novel does so in a very scary way. I don’t think it would help mothers who do not love their children, to be more prepared to discuss this and expect a supportive reaction. I think it is more likely to inhibit women who are unsure of their feelings about their children, and feel that as mothers they are a source of danger to their children.

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