We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

A review of the psychological thriller novel We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

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Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a novel about post-natal depression. It shows motherhood as a painful experience, describing the anguish and frustration of a mother trying to form a bond with her baby, and the tragic consequences of this failure in the infant-mother bond.

Eva Katchadourian wants motherhood to be a metamorphic experience in which she is, in some way,
“transformed” and “transported.” She wants it to be “nothing short of revelation.” Of course, Eva’s idea of motherhood cannot ever be realised. Her idealisation of motherhood prevents Eva from experiencing any real connection to her son Kevin. When Eva holds him for the first time she feels nothing: “I felt—absent, I kept scrabbling around in myself for this new indescribable emotion, like stirring a crowded silverware drawer for the potato peeler, but no matter how I rattled around, no matter what I moved out of the way, it wasn’t there.”

Eva’s attempts to satisfy her son often seem to fail. She tries breastfeeding Kevin and his response feels punishing:

The expression on his twisted face was disgruntled. His body was inert; I could only interpret his lassitude as a lack of enthusiasm. Sucking is one of our few innate instincts, but with his mouth right at my enlarged brown nipple, his head lolled away in distaste. Though I’d been warned that I wouldn’t lactate on demand like a cafeteria milk dispenser, I kept trying; he kept resisting; he liked the other nipple no better. And all the while I was waiting. My breath shallow, I was waiting. And I kept waiting.

Eva turns her anger and frustration inward and begins to blame herself. She feels that she is unlike other mothers and is “not following the program.” She repeatedly and savagely denigrates herself until she is filled up with all these difficult feelings and unable to talk to anyone about them. She is part of a small nuclear unit with no extended family. She finds it difficult to talk to her husband Franklin, who shares a bond with Kevin and cannot understand her feelings; nor can she confide in her friends or the babysitter, Siobhan, who only speak about motherhood in glowing terms.

As Eva’s idealised image of motherhood is challenged, so is our own. Shriver depicts a character who wants to love and care for her child, but cannot. She depicts a character who, at times, actually hates her child. Shriver’s book forces us to look at these more difficult aspects and include them into our notion of motherhood.

Nic James thinks too much and always talks over movies.

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