“We Need to Talk about Kevin” – The Voice of a Bereaved Mother


Before September 11 and before all those worldwide security crackdowns, American schools installed metal-detectors in the premises. The small-town, middle-class American parents and their children were exposed to perpetual incidences of high-school massacres. The increasing occurrence of teenage killing frenzies and the intense emotional response they elicited called for new, three-dimensional narratives to at least chronicle, if not explain, how some ordinary next-door boy transform himself into a ‘monster’ – as the media depicted. D.B.C. Pierre’s Booker prize winning novel “Vernon God Little” touched these sad episodes, setting its story in a small Texan community. ‘Vernon’ took on a satirical view on a town gone mad, but I think it blanches in comparison with Lionel Shriver controversial novel “We Need to Talk about Kevin.” This seventh novel from Shriver went on to win British Orange Prize in June 2005.

The novel is narrated in the form of letters, crafted by the central character Eva Khatchadourian, written to her former Husband Franklin Plaskett. At the start of the story, we get to know that Eva is in distressing situation. Her ‘hard-to-pronounce’ name ‘Khatchadourian’ evokes hard stares among people and she is repeatedly persecuted, since the ‘Thursday.’ The day, April 8th 1999, is when her son Kevin (3 days before his 16th birthday), shot seven of his fellow students in the school gym. Eva, in the series of letters to her husband, tries to figure out what went wrong and why did he do it?

Ezra Miller as 'Kevin' in the movie adaptation

Ezra Miller as ‘Kevin’ in the movie adaptation

At the age of 37, Eva is a successful career woman, founding her own travel company and happily married to Franklin – works as location scout for TV ads. Franklin is an unabashed patriot and believes in the American dream, whereas Eva (of Armenian origin) loathes the arrogance and parochialism of American people. Despite many other differences, Eva and Franklin are very much in love. Eva has never thought of giving birth to a child, but because of Franklin insistence and thought that, a child would be answer to “the big question”, Eva gives birth to Kevin. Even at the birth, she could sense that there is something wrong with Kevin. He refuses his mother’s milk, screams, never laughs and only stares.

Eva doesn’t fall in love with her boy and she admits it. She hates her big, lavish suburban house and Franklin’s exacerbated behavior. Eva is forced to desert her career and stays at home to take care of Kevin. But, Kevin encircled within endless no. of toys only sits and fixates his eyes on the mother. He dislikes cartoons and only eats when his mother is not looking. Eva approaches motherhood by the book; her ambivalence only breeds more rage inside the indiscernible mind of Kevin. At age six (up to the 1st grade), he deliberately refuses to go to toilet and always wear the nappies. When he starts to speak, he tells that he founds everything as ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid.’ If an argument ensues, he unbearably singsongs: “Nyeh NYEE nyeh, nyeh-nyeeeh!”

But, Franklin never sees his son’s odd behavior. His willful blindness cooks up some reasons and tells that as Kevin’s point of view. Franklin, who once agreed that Kevin should take Eva’s surname, now only believes on Kevin’s word. When Eva gets pregnant again and gives birth to sweet-natured Celia, the gender divide becomes very wide: mum and daughter vs. father and son. Over the years, Kevin retains his hateful behavior and grows into a frightening teenager – more sinister than the usual rebellious kind. Eva painfully scrutinizes her choices and Kevin’s behavior, and at times vows that she has expected ‘Thursday’ from Kevin.

Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver

The hard-working, self-analytic and socially affluent Eva gets easily frustrated by motherhood, and even at the beginning, she admits that she loathes the ‘little buggers.’ Many parents, who believe their children to be god-like, would find this book atrocious. But that’s what it’s about: a raged child with a false cheery persona and a frustrated mother with a dislike for her son. She sees her ‘mother’ status as a feeling of having been cheated by society. Although, the novel is not a manifesto on feminism, there are some strong feminist themes that must be studied. Eva’s despair was born from female existentialism. She always expresses doubt about female destiny. The meticulous constructed passages reiterate that Eva has secretly harbored great fears about having children.

“As that infant squirmed on my breast, from which he shrank in the distaste, I spurned him in return – he may have been a fifteenth my size, but it seemed fair at the time. Since that moment we have fought one another with an unrelenting ferocity…….” – this passage at the end of book tells us that may be Eva is selfish and maybe she loved the idea of being a victim (she constantly brings up her Armenian heritage, to Kevin’s dismay). At the same time, Shriver asks us: ‘Does a woman, deficient in performing the expected traditional role, deserve harsh punishment?’ Many critics argue that the depiction of Kevin – his authority destroying missions – is exaggerated or unbelievable. Yeah, it is unbelievable, at times, but only if you take what Eva says as the ultimate truth (remember, she narrates things after the atrocious killings).

Tilda Swinton as Eva and John Reily as Franklin

Tilda Swinton as Eva and John Reily as Franklin

Lionel Shriver poses lots of hard questions and delivers larger truths through Eva’s narration, but is her narration, the whole truth? That remains as a mystery? And, that is the element, which makes the movie adaptation, only a good one (not great). In the book, there is a little room for doubt, about Kevin’s behavior, whereas in the movie, everything is portrayed as a fact. Nonetheless, the cast for the movie is exceptional and Lynn Ramsay did a commendable job as the director.

“We Need to Talk about Kevin” is less interested in the cause of high school tragedies than the architecture of it. The words are brutally honest and there is nothing conventional about it. Lionel Shriver doesn’t invite you to witness her verdict on these shootings; she incites more questions, that can’t be forgotten or dismissed.


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