Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver has produced a compelling and engrossing work in We Need To Talk About Kevin. The premise of looking at the aftermath of a school shooting from the point of view of the shooter’s mother holds many possibilities, not all of them original or interesting.  Fortunately, Shriver steers confidently for waters deep enough that headlines and sensationalism are the least of the narrator’s worries.

The narrative itself is a remarkable high wire act across a deep chasm of ambiguity.  We’re told the mother’s story in her words from before the shooter’s conception until well into the aftermath.  She’s the real star of the work; a very believable character with flaws and blind spots, who, through a nice contrivance, is telling her story to someone who already knows it.  This means her story interprets  the facts rather than retelling them.

That interpretation is the heart of the book.  The actions of the shooter are pretty much the only unambiguous events in her story.  The rest are presented through the eyes of Eva, the mother, in hindsight and to a particular end. She’s painted strongly enough that the reader forms an opinion of her, and that opinion drives the interpretation of the events she relates.  She’s a strong character, but not a cliched character.  What different readers think of her will reflect the reader as clearly as the character.  This is half the fun of the book.

Though the narrative is direct, a story about a teenager believably committing harrowing acts of violence almost requires a search for root causes.  The elemental nature of the crimes pushes the reader’s questions well past parenting practices to the nature of good and evil.  This is all presented even-handedly enough – or obliquely enough – that the reader’s ideas are at least as important as the author’s.  Or the narrator’s.

I read this on a recommendation from my Mom (read into that what you want), and when we discussed it I was struck by the different interpretations we’d had of the characters and the actions.  It wasn’t as if we had read different books, or even that we disagreed on much, but our impressions illuminated our personal experiences and beliefs.  Each reader will see something different here, and talking about what you see is more interesting than reading it.

In addition to being a catalyst for deep thoughts, the book is very absorbing reading.  I found it very hard to put down.

A must.

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