We Need to Talk About Kevin



Brooklyn, NY
United States
New York US

“Every year, my reading list is split into two parts: books I read for myself, and books I read for my job. I work at the National Book Foundation, the nonprofit organization that presents the National Book Awards (NBA). Starting in mid-October, when we announce the year’s twenty finalists, I spend every spare moment reading the books that are up for the Awards. In 2010, one of the finalists in fiction was So Much for That (Harper, 2010) by Lionel Shriver—a dark, moving novel about a man who must abandon his dream of retiring to a remote Tanzanian island when he finds out his wife has cancer and needs him to stay at his job for the health insurance. It’s bold and bleak and upsetting, and I couldn’t put it down. So, in 2011, when I was again free to stray from the NBA list, I decided to pick up another book of Shriver’s. For no particular reason, I chose We Need to Talk About Kevin (Counterpoint, 2003), an epistolary novel told from the perspective of Eva, a woman who is essentially ostracized from life after her son, Kevin, brutally murders seven of his classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker at his high school. In her letters to her estranged husband, Franklin, Eva discusses her reticence to have children in the first place, and her utter inability to connect with Kevin, beginning in pregnancy and continuing through to the present in her visits with him in prison. The narrative builds to the scene of Kevin’s heinous crime, which Shriver writes in excruciating detail. But just when you think you’ve read the worst of it, you discover she’s not through with you yet. You might be thinking, No thanks, that’s just not my thing, and I have to say, it’s not mine either. I don’t like horror. I don’t like blood and guts. The only Stephen King book I’ve read in the last fifteen years was his memoir, On Writing (Scribner, 2010). But there was something about We Need to Talk About Kevin that compelled me to, well, talk about it, constantly and to everyone I knew—except my pregnant friends, of course. Shriver is fearless and uncompromising; she doesn’t shy away from the darkest, most painful parts of life. But the novel isn’t a freak show either. It’s a provocative, expertly crafted, and at times beautiful story about the choices we make, those we don’t, and the people they collectively make us. I read a lot of other books in 2011, including the wonderful finalists for the National Book Awards, but I’m still thinking about We Need to Talk About Kevin, and it’s still influencing my own work as a writer. I strive to be as daring as Shriver, to worry less about who I’ll please and who I’ll offend, and to simply tell my story as it was meant to be told.”

Katie McDonough