Lionel Shriver's Orange prize-winning novel has been on my "to be read" pile ever since I started working at HarperCollins Canada, two point five years ago. Somehow, it always got shuffled around, whether or not I was trying to start or finish a challenge, or something flashy had caught my eye, the book remained on the pile. I guess I found the subject matter a little daunting: a mother talks through letters to her ex-husband about their troubled child, Kevin, who was responsible for a serious school shooting incident.
But once you start We Need to Talk About Kevin, it's almost impossible to put down. Shriver has a way with character that forces the reader to confront human nature head on -- both the good and the bad. There's no stereotype in Eva. She's an individual who has made her way in the world, created a successful company and lives a happy life with her husband. She's hesitant to start a family for a number of reasons: will she be a good mother, how will a baby change their lives, what will it do to her relationship, all of which seem rational when making a decision as big as whether or not to start a family. And it's apparent that it's a decision, and not an accident, when she gets pregnant with Kevin. Everything else that happens later seems to fall from Eva as a result of her inability to feel happy about the birth of her son. It's not as if she blames herself but more that she's working through the blame, the denial, the regret, as she sends letter after letter to her estranged husband, Franklin.
The letters are personal and they are obviously missing a bit of perspective. But that's why they are just so effective, you are in Eva's life irrevocably, and you feel her pain, are motivated by her hurt, and want to understand what went wrong almost as much as she does. I don't think you can write a book like this without laying bare the limitations of humanity in a way -- of society's ability to forgive and forget to a point that benefits those directly involved in tragedy. For Eva, she's haunted by her losses, surely, but she's also haunted by the simple fact that life doesn't end even if you might want it to, even if you believe it should. You take a step and move into a more, miserable life, but you're alive nonetheless.
Her relationship to her son, the mass murderer, is complex, difficult, aching, and utterly real. But what I loved most about my Perennial edition, was the story behind the book at the end. Apparently, Shriver (and I'm paraphrasing so hopefully I don't get this too wrong) wrote this novel really quickly and sent it to her agent at the time who rejected it entirely. The string of novels she'd written up to that point hadn't been enormously successful and when the agent refused to sell it, Shriver took it upon herself to send it to an editor friend, who ultimately (I think) published the book. Then, as we all know, it won a well-deserved Orange Prize. Sometimes a writer simply has to trust her own voice. Right?