I just finished We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and my timing couldn't be more canny. Or is it uncanny? In any case, as I surfed the internet this weekend for news and updates about the shootings in Arizona, my fictional mind was entrenched in this story about a high school shooting and the fallout for the family. Narrated by the mother of the school shooter, Kevin, the novel is a series of letters to her husband, Franklin. The letters allow her to investigate her own role in Kevin’s crime. The novel is, from the outset, an interrogation of our culture’s tendency to blame the mother, but the novel doesn't let her off easy. She is telling the story from her own limited perspective and so she is, by definition, unreliable. But she also doesn't let herself off easy, continually questioning how she might have mothered differently.
The novel is incredibly well-written and compelling. The style is neither overwhelming nor flat. The narrator has a tendency to be strident, but her tone and language are consistent with her position in the novel. Overall, I found the novel interesting.
Did I like it? As a writer, I admire it. Shriver embraces the ambiguity and she doesn’t let her narrator, or her readers, off the hook. Every mother will find at least one small thing to identify with in this novel, and that identification will be horrifying. As a mother, I couldn’t help but study myself and my child’s behavior a little more closely as I read this novel.
As a reader, I’m not sure I would recommend it to another reader. It is not enjoyable or pleasurable or entertaining. Reading this book was like living in the world since the shootings on Saturday. While reading this book, you can’t pretend that bad things don’t happen; in fact, you have to confront that reality. And, what’s more, you have to live the reality of bad things, without any of the good things to offer needed relief.
I can, however, recommend two other Lionel Shriver novels: The Post-Birthday World and The Female of the Species. The Post-Birthday World is the more lighthearted of the two. The novel begins on a significant birthday and takes as its departure a kiss. Two narrative paths take off from this moment: one in which the main character goes home to her boyfriend, who never knows; and a second narrative, in which she leaves her boyfriend and begins a new life with the man she kissed on her birthday.
The Female of the Species focuses on the later life of a famous anthropologist. Narrated by her longtime assistant, it follows her as she returns to the site of her first big discovery, and then as she falls in love with a much younger man.
All of Shriver’s novels are well-written. I never found her style overdone or distracting, though she is given to Britishisms, even when her characters are American. She tends to gravitate to the darker side of life, and ambiguity. The stories she creates are compelling. I plan on reading her latest novel, So Much for That, soon. But right now I need a break. Time to go watch some TV.