Lionel Shriver, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

When it comes to investigating the rather daunting subject of adolescent mass-murders, the end product is almost always to speculate how exactly a parent could bring up a child capable of such a thing. In Lionel Shriver’s novel we are given a gripping, painfully honest account of the upbringing of a child, Kevin, who has murdered seven people at his high-school.

The lead-up to the massacre is recounted in a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian, mother of Kevin, to her estranged husband. Through the very personal epistolary form, Shriver pulls the reader back and forth between disgust and empathy, retribution and, ultimately, forgiveness towards a woman who is as equally interested in ‘who’s to blame?’ as we are. It is never made clear whether Kevin’s actions came about through nature or nurture.

The other side of this understandably complex story is that of maternal ambivalence, which often serves to utterly alienate the reader from Eva. What is impressive about Shriver’s writing is that she is able to take the reader from a point of detachment at the start of the novel, to a harrowed sympathy for an often very dislikeable central character, most especially at the crushingly climactic ending.