We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail Classics)I first read this book about three years ago, and I have to admit that it took me on rather an emotional journey. At times I found it harrowing, at times challenging and at times sad, but I could not put it down. For those that do not know this book, it is written from the perspective of a mother, writing/talking to her husband about their son Kevin. The book takes us through her journey, discovering her pregnancy, becoming a mother and raising her child. It is a book that really challenges the nature/nurture question as her son Kevin has done a terrible thing and she is wrestling with how this happened. Was he born evil? From her perspective you would believe he was. In the book she talks about how he would be a perfect child when other people were around, but as soon as they left he would scream and cry simply to torment her. That he would look at her with evil in his eye, and deliberately refused to be toilet trained to punish her. The important thing to keep in mind here though is that this is HER story, she is telling things as she saw it, and she remembers it. This is one of the things that I enjoyed about the book, as difficult a subject as it is to grapple with, especially as a mother myself. Was it that he was really evil, or was it simply that she had no attachment with him, never comforted him, and that was why he always cried. Did he deliberately avoid toilet training or talking, or was it that he was emotionally stunted due to his mother’s oppressive manner towards him? And the real question, the unanswerable question, is who really knows?

How much of us is because of our inherent nature, and how much is because of the way we were raised and the experiences we have had along the way? Do we all have the potential, given the right (by which I mean wrong) circumstances, to behave in ways that are heinous to even contemplate?

I had the opportunity to see the movie of this book recently. I have to say that Tilda Swinton does an amazing job. Every scene she is in is fraught with emotion. The director did a good job of presenting the story from her perspective, and showing the many aspects of her experience. These experiences are not that uncommon, to begin with. I know that while I was excited about being a mother I have had moments when I have thought ‘what happened to my life?’, and I have had those experiences when my child has made a liar out of me – being unwell and out of sorts until we get to the doctor’s office and then he is perfectly normal and happy. I could relate to how she might feel in certain circumstances, and in a way, that’s what is kind of scary about this story. Is it a case of ‘there but by the grace of God go I’? Is this a story that could have happened to any of us without knowing?

The film also explores the mother’s internal dialogue, she makes herself a victim of her own circumstance, she plays the martyr in the community, and she punishes herself for her son’s behaviour. All of which understandable, yet also seems somehow selfish, like she is making it about her so she can wallow in herself pity rather than picking herself up and moving forward. When a person in the community confronts her about her son’s actions she allows herself to be abused, almost willing people to punish her.

After I finished this book, and also the film, I had to have a period of reflection. This book really got under my skin, it upset me, angered me, challenged me and made me very grateful. It made me think about the way I have parented, the complexities of human emotions, and the challenge of having a family life that meets the needs of everybody. It is OK for a mother to want to have her own life, her own interests, of course it is, but it is the resentment of what you want but can’t have that becomes dangerous. Pent up emotions, unexpressed frustrations. These are all normal experiences on some level, but what this book does is take those ‘normal’ feelings, ‘normal’ experiences, and just makes them a little bigger, a little more volatile, and this results in a more extreme situation occurring. Extreme perhaps, but also scarily close to what could be possible, and has in fact happened.

So, overall, I would recommend this book, but prepare yourself first, it is not a light and easy read. I would also recommend the movie, very well acted, and well directed. And then go and give your child or children a cuddle. For your sake as much as theirs.

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