Saturday, March 14, 2009

TSS - We Need to Talk About Kevin

When I reviewed The Hour I First Believed, I had two comments that I should read this book as well: Jackie at Farm Lane Books and Anna at Diary of an Eccentric. I immediately requested the book from my local library, and I began reading the book the day I picked it up. Both ladies are right: this book does try to give some insight into the mind of a teenage killer --- and because of this subject matter it is - not surprisingly - a very disturbing book.

The story is written as an epistolary novel - that is, it is a series of letters from Eva, Kevin's mother, to her estranged husband, Franklin. Kevin has been incarcerated nearly two years and Eva is still trying to make sense of it all. The first letter is dated November 8, 2000 and the last letter is dated April 8, 2001. Over the course of 5 months Eva tries to recall the past 20 years of her life: from the time she married Franklin until Thursday (the distinct way she chooses to remember April 8, 1999 -- the day her son chose to kill 7 fellow classmates, a well-respected English teacher, and an innocent cafeteria worker). Interspersed with these recollections are present-day visits that Eva makes to the juvenile correctional facility where Kevin is currently being held. In three days, in celebration of his 18th birthday - April 11, 2001 - he will be transferred to Sing Sing to serve his remaining sentence.

The book is disturbing on so many different accounts -- but I think for me, the primary reason I had such difficulty with the subject was that it was told from Eva's point of view. It took me a very long time to come to grips with the amount of guilt that Eva felt. Eva blames herself, but in an unusual way. She spends quite a bit of time discussing the fact that she never bonded with Kevin; that she and Kevin never had a relationship. Being a stay-at-home mom for 15 years I simply could not relate to these thoughts - and then it occurred to me. This is Eva talking. This is not an objective point of view, but a very subjective point of view. Is Eva really remembering the events and emotions the way they actually happened -- or is her view of the past clouded by the reality of the present? Truly - if I were in Eva's shoes, would I not do the exact same thing? Isn't it easier for a parent to try to accept the responsibility of our child's actions than to accept the fact that our child knowingly and willingly made the morally wrong choice that ruined so many lives? This has almost caused me to question more - than it has provided me with viable answers. And perhaps that is the point --- there are no neat, viable answers to the question of teenage mass murders. It is an unfathomable act that eludes logical reasoning.

I wonder how the story would be different if told from Kevin's point of view. There are few glimpses into his thoughts and feelings; only what he chooses to present to his mother during bi-weekly visitations or what he chooses to display on a television documentary. But even if the story were told from his point of view -- it would have to be read with a highly suspicious mindset. Would he be telling us his true thoughts and feelings - or would he be telling us what he thinks we want to hear/believe --- or what he wants us to hear/believe. This also leaves me - again - with many unanswerable questions and a nagging, persistent voice in my head that asks WHY??? What makes these kids snap at such a young age? In some real-life instances the reason seems to point to "relentless bullying" or "unreal parental expectations" or "numbing video games" -- but in Kevin's case, none of these pat answers fit. And that - I am afraid - is the crux of the matter. I am in search of a pat answer when there is no possible way that a pat answer exists.

Sometimes I wonder if the media has some responsibility in all of this. While these kinds of events are news - and definitely noteworthy - does the media spend too much time plastering the perpetrators face all over the television? Do young, impressionable minds think that they will "get their 15 minutes of fame" if they commit the next big mass murder spree? Do they seek revenge - and fame - and give little thought to lifetime consequences? Many of these teenagers commit suicide after the shooting spree -- but do they consider the lifetime effects for the remaining family members? If the media were to inform the public - without the high profile, glamorous blitz -- would young minds be less likely to think of such horrendous acts and deeds? I have no idea. I am just searching for possible answers to probably an unanswerable question.

So all I can conclude is this: but for the Grace of God goes I. I have 3 children ages 22, 20 and 15. Two of them have made it through high school -- one has two years to go. Thus far, they have not succumbed to the hopelessness of their generation and chosen to annihilate their classmates NOR have they been victims of this kind of brutality. I am grateful - and I do not take that Grace for granted. Every time I hear of another one of these kinds of mass murders (the most recent was committed by a 28 year old man in Alabama) - I commit to saying a prayer for the victims of the senseless shooting; I commit to saying a prayer for the family members of the shooter; and I commit to saying a prayer for the shooter himself, who for some, forever unknown reason to us - saw no viable way out but through senseless destruction.

It is obvious that We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a light-hearted, pleasant read. is one that is definitely worth reading. Lionel Shriver does an excellent job of presenting believable characters in an unbelievable setting. The minute detail into the stream of consciousness of a mother left behind is exemplary. If you are at all interested in this subject matter, then this is a book that you should definitely put on the TBR list.


  1. I started this book last year and gave up. It was very disturbing, plus I just didn't like Eva. Your review is excellent!

  2. Excellent review! I have this book on my radar, but I haven't decided if I'll tackle it. Great job on this post.

  3. I'm pleased that you liked this book - I know that the subject matter is not very nice, but I found it really thought provoking.

    I haven't read The First Hour I Believed yet, but I hope to soon.
    Which book did you prefer reading?

  4. This was also recommended to me by several bloggers after I read Hey Nostradamus, also about a school shooting. It does sound disturbing, but well worth reading. There was a shooting last week at a German school, and it's been all over the yeah, these things keep on happening. In one sense, I can see how the news would be to blame in the sense that they put the idea in the realm of possibilities. Kids who'd never think of it on their own now know all about school shootings. But then again, if it happens, it's hard to imagine it not being reported. And there are probably deeper causes behind it.

  5. Another great review Molly. This book has been on my radar for awhile also--I even requested and received it from paperbackswap, but haven't felt compelled to pick it up. While I really despise the media in a lot of instances I am not sure they are to blame for this--as far as your wondering if these kids think of the long term consequences or of their remaining family, I would say, probably not. Teens seem to be such short sighted creatures with the belief that nothing bad will really happen to them--I just don't think they can comprehend themselves 20 years or more out--especially themselves 20 years in prison! (or longer of course)
    What makes them do this? Ahhh, that is the 20 million dollar question isn't it. Quite a difficult phenomenon and one where it is obvious from your review there is no obvious answer.

    I agree with you--how terribly sad that these young people see no other way if coping with something, and that they have so little regard for human life.


  6. What a wonderful and thought provoking post. The book sounds powerful - I'm adding it to my wish list.

  7. I agree with you -- I read this last year and could not put it down -- despite the disturbing subject matter. I just read "The Hour I First Believed" and didn't make the connection between the two until you mentioned it. (I know, both have school shootings -- but so does Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes -- don't know if that interests you). But they seemed like such wildly different books. The Kevin book also reminded me of a book I just read by Doris Lessing "The Fifth Child," which has a theme of "can a child be unlovable." In Kevin, Eva has a similar reaction to Kevin -- he seems like an evil stranger from the day he is born. All these books read together would make quite a little theme. I might have to put them in a category on my blog -- School Shootings and Disturbed Children Books.

    Great post! Hope my comment makes sense. I'm trying to squeeze it in really fast!

  8. It took me about 100 pages to get into this book, but I kept going and I'm glad I did. It's very disturbing, but it gives you so much to think about. I shudder remembering how evil Kevin was.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  9. I read The Hour I First Believed and We Need To Talk About Kevin back to back, which did make for some interesting comparisons. I just reviewed this book on my blog. I found the subject matter difficult, but still facinating. I guess I'm constantly also searching for the "whys" of these seemingly senseless shootings. Unfortunately there is no one answer.


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