Novelist Lionel Shriver on parenthood
Shriver's book, "We Need to Talk about Kevin" raises questions about the limits of maternal love and the nature of evil itself.
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On the BBC's "World Book Club," Harriett Gilbert interviewed acclaimed writer Lionel Shriver about her bestselling novel "We Need to Talk about Kevin."
Shriver is the author of nine novels -- most recently, "The Post-Birthday World." But the one that swept her to international fame is "We Need to Talk about Kevin," which has now sold over one million copies in 21 languages.
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 "We Need to Talk about Kevin" is the profoundly disturbing story of a boy who, shortly before his 16th birthday, kills seven classmates in a high school massacre.
The novel's success is partly due to the fact that its straightforwardly gripping. Constructed as a sequence of letters written by Eva to her absent husband Franklin, within pages it tells readers that the couple's teenage son -- the Kevin of the novel's title -- has been imprisoned for terrible crime. One afternoon in his school's gymnasium, Kevin methodically shot dead with a crossbow, seven of his fellow students.
As Eva remembers the years that led up to this mass murder, its shadow troubles everything -- from the happy childless couple's debates about whether Eva should get pregnant; through Kevin's birth and Eva's inability to bond with him; to Kevin's increasingly malicious behavior towards his mother, towards vulnerable children -- including his eventual sister, Celia; but very rarely towards his father. Which gradually leads Franklin -- and readers -- to wonder how much it's Eva who's provoking, or even imagining Kevin's spitefulness.
As the novel moves to its climax and the breathtaking twist in its final pages, readers are also held by this question: Can children be born evil, or are they only made so by adults?
In a passage where in one of her letters to Franklin Eva is thinking back to the time when she was still deciding whether or not to have a child at all: "Since I last wrote, I had been rooting around in my mental attic for the original reservations I had about motherhood. I do recall a tumult of fears, though all the wrong ones. Had I cataloged the downsides of parenthood, 'son might turn out killer' would never have turned out on the list."
Shriver said her starting point for the story were the real-life high school shootings, but it wasn't the subject matter for the book:
"What surprised me when I went at the project is that I thought that was my subject matter, it turns out it was instead ... a starting point, because the real subject matter was more motherhood. I was at that time in my early forties, I was on the cusp of being unable to have children. I still hadn't had any. And so, my anxiety about motherhood and the questions about what it was I was afraid of, ended up intruding into the manuscript immediately. And became what was the real subject matter. And I think that's why this book has captured so many other people's imagination and has attracted a large audience.
"It's not so much that we want to read another school shooting book, but there are a lot of mothers out there, and more generally a lot of parents -- this isn't just for women -- and too many fiction writers have glossed over the experience of parenthood. I have a lot of regard for the difficulty of raising children, and I've, since publishing this book, talked to a number of parents who have been glad that some of that difficulty have been recorded in fiction."
"We Need to Talk about Kevin" raises questions about culpability, the limits of maternal love and the nature of evil itself.
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