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Book delves into a dark corner of our world

Thursday. Throughout this anguished and gripping tale, this day of the week, Thursday” is usually italicized, suggesting that it has some special (and possibly sinister) significance. Specifically, it is the day that Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin (two days shy of his 16th birthday) will kill 11 people. Taking the form of an epistolary novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin consists of a series of letters written by Eva to her “estranged” husband, Franklin. In essence, these letters represent Eva’s painful attempts to discover the reasons for her son’s decision to murder nine of his classmates and two adults. It is a daunting task.

By turns witty, arrogant, defiant and defensive, Eva records the details of her life in an attempt to find clues ... something that answers the provocative question, why? Where did it begin? Why did her morose and inverted son plan and stage a massacre in a school gymnasium? As she slowly sifts the chronology of her life ... the details of her marriage, revisiting every major and minor conflict, she searches for the flaw that led to disaster.

As Eva recounts her successful career as writer of a travel book series entitled “A Wing and a Prayer” — books which provided guidance to “economically disadvantaged travelers” — Eva recalls the factors attending her decision to have a baby: how she became increasingly aware of her biological clock (she is in her late 30s) and develops a devious scheme to have a baby despite Franklin’s ambivalence about parenthood. However, since they are wealthy, both would-be parents are confident that they can provide an exceptionally stable environment for a child. Eva plans Kevin’s birth as carefully as she orchestrates and markets her travel books.

However, there are disquieting factors from the beginning. Kevin rejects his mother’s breast and will only accept formula. Eventually, he also rejects toilet training and wears diapers (which he soils at an alarming rate) until he is nearly 6. Babysitters and care-takers quit. Daycare teachers complain of Kevin’s “asocial behavior,” and though he resists learning to talk, he perfects an irritating ability to “mimic” his mother’s speech in a sing-song voice — “Nah, neh, nah, nah, Neh, naw ...”— a talent that she suspects is a calculated attempt to anger her. Distressed by Kevin’s listless manner and his growing hostility to others, Eva begins to wonder if it is possible for a child to actually resent being born. Certainly, there seems to be little in life that pleases the sullen boy. By the time he begins school, he has already developed a bored and indifferent response to all attempts to elicit his interest: “Whatever,” he says, giving the response of the jaded and bored teenager.

Gradually, Eva realizes that instead of suffering from “attention deficient” or any of a host of mental impairments, Kevin is very intelligent. In addition, his indifference to his school, family, clothing and music is genuine. Ruefully, Eva notes that she had her son tested for Downs Syndrome, but “did not have him tested for malice, spiteful indifference, or for congenital meanness.” In time, it becomes evident that Kevin sees the world as “pointless,” viewing it with either hostility or repugnance.

However, he has an ominous fascination for the rash of school shootings that are happening with alarming frequency. He becomes a kind of authority on each incident. He can list all of the “vital statistics” — age of shooter, number of victims, choice of weapons, etc. — smugly noting that he is contemptuous of suicides and killers who leave elaborate notes. Kevin prefers motives that are “unknown, hidden and/or mysterious.”

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In conjunction with Kevin’s growing antipathy for the world around him, Eva is alarmed by a series of “accidents” and disturbing events in which her son may have played a part. Kevin’s sister is blinded in one eye as a result of a suspicious accident; an unknown person plants incriminating evidence in the lockers of popular students, evidenced that suggests that they are budding terrorists or racists. Kevin acquires a “friend” who appears to be as maladjusted as he is, and the two boys create a plot that involves accusing a teacher of sexual improprieties; the local police show up inquiring about an alleged “prank.” Someone is dropping rocks and bricks from an overpass onto motorists.

Unfortunately, Eva’s growing distress is not shared by Franklin. What she sees as danger signals, Franklin sees as the robust vitality of a growing boy. When Eva confronts Kevin, Franklin invariably springs to his defense and assumes the role of a tolerant father who encourages his son’s interest in hunting by buying him an assortment of weapons ... including a crossbow. Franklin also promotes a series of father-son activities such as camping and visiting historic sites … including Vietnam. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this relationship is the growing evidence that Kevin despises his father and will create a special punishment for him.

As the fateful date approaches — April 8, 1999 — Eva becomes increasingly anxious. Later, she will recall in detail the last family breakfast. Especially noteworthy is Kevin’s remark about his mother’s affectionate goodbye to Celia, the sweet and timid daughter. “Sure you don’t want to say goodbye to Celia one more time?” In the years to come, she will wonder if Kevin was hinting about the unthinkable acts that were to come.

We Need to Talk about Kevin will probably become a celebrated and hotly-debated book in the coming months. The fact that there is already a movie version in the theaters, featuring the brilliant actress Tilda Swinton, suggests that Hollywood is mindful of the fact that both the film and the book may prove to be “significant.” Eva, faced with the decision of hiring a lawyer to defend Kevin, observes that “We live in a time where lawyers see trials as games, not morality plays.” She is right, of course, when she continues, “We live in a country that does not discriminate between fame and infamy.”

A number of critics are comparing We Need to Talk about Kevin to works such as Rosemary’s Baby, and admittedly, I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury short story, “The Little Assassin” and a marvelous book by William March (circa 1950s), The Bad Seed. However, Lionel Shriver’s novel is no mere “spook” tale. Although it is a disquieting novel with a “Grand Guignol” ending, there is more here than a momentary scare. It poses a provocative question: why are these massacres happening? Is there a hidden cord, a motif that bounds them together? Is it, as Shriver suggests, a desperate yearning to become “special” in some way in a world where they feel both purposeless ... and anonymous?


We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Harper Perennial 2012. 500 pages.

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