Book Review: Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin


I absolutely raced through this book, staying up late two nights in a row until I had finished it. It’s the first bit of reading I have done for my MA which starts this month so I am beginning to feel a little more prepared now. Not that that’s the reason why I read it so quickly, I genuinely couldn’t stop turning the pages!

The tale is told from Eva’s point of view, in a series of letters written to her husband Franklin. Initially this style (as in, it’s all letters) irked me, and the first few felt awkward to read however I quickly got into the flow of the writing and it was actually quite easy going. The letters detail the life of Eva and her family; from well before the birth of their first son Kevin, then their daughter Celia up until the present day. Eva is working through her thoughts about Thursday, the day that Kevin lured members of his school friends and teachers into the gymnasium then murdered them in a horrific school shooting.

She does this through tracing her relationship to Kevin as he grows and his personality develops.  From birth, he was a difficult baby – so difficult that they could never get nannies to stay for more than a couple of weeks. The assumed natural bond between child and mother never materializes, realising this and determined to forge that connection somehow, Eva gives up her job as a travel writer and instead stays home with Kevin. Despite her matyr-like behaviour Kevin’s sociopathic behaviour prevents Eva from loving him. She describes how he wasn’t toilet trained until he was six. He also ruins, albeit at an early age Eva’s study by spraying the walls with ink – the only place in their ultra-sleek modern home that she really feels comfortable in. Then when Ceilia is born, her pets go missing and there is an incident which results in her losing an eye due to an accident with drain cleaner. Both of these times Eva believes Kevin is responsible.

However she also describes how Kevin’s attitude would change around his father Franklin, he would ape his behaviour, being cheerful and hearty – involving himself in Franklin’s interests. As a result, Franklin believes the problem lies with Eva – she is too quick to blame Kevin, too neurotic. As a result their relationship deteriorates and we discover that shortly before Thursday they agree on a divorce. These alternate sides to Kevin’s personality can be read as either him displaying the habitual lying and deceitful nature expected, or as Eva being paranoid and comparing her inability to have a relationship with Kevin against the relationships he has with others.

These memories from the past are interspersed with the descriptions of the tense relationship that she and Kevin currently have – she dutifully visits him in prison however, these visits are strained and tense.

I don’t want to give everything away, as there were a couple of points in the plot that really shocked me. Eva’s letters are cleverly crafted, you think you can decipher what Kevin’s personality is leading to – there are small hints, but never quite what you expect.  What I found to be the main strength of this book is having Eva as a narrator; her relationship with Kevin is clearly strained, but I found myself wondering how central she was to Kevin’s behaviour. Through the letters she reveals her own secrets, such as how she once was so violent towards Kevin that she threw him across the room and broke his arm. The unreliability of the narrator made me even more interested in the story; I want to probe at it more and know different viewpoints but am prevented from doing so.

Overall I think this is a great, compelling read. It’s extremely dark, but that’s what makes it interesting. Watching how Kevin’s personality develops resulting in the eventual atrocity raises the age old question: nature vs nurture? Was Kevin born that detached from reality, or was it as a result of his surroundings. I think that the book wants you to believe that he is born that way, certainly Eva is absolved from all guilt, however I for one don’t think that his family life helped at all.

Has anyone seen the movie? I hear it’s equally good and pretty disturbing! Let me know what you thought…



ps. did anyone else find the way she signed her name really creepy?