“We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver is sadistic, sarcastic, sardonic, yet riveting. Are there bad mothers or are some children just born evil. Kevin is Damien in the movie The Omen to the Nth degree. If Kevin’s head were shaved would 666 be engraved into his skull?
Lionel Shriver strips away the blither and blather of ideal mother/child bond relationships to get at the gritty core of a malformed twisted dance between two beings who intrinsically hate each other from conception and birth.
Ms. Shriver is an excellent storyteller and I’m enjoying the novel. It is written in the form of letters from Kevin’s mother, Eva to her ex-husband, Franklin. I’m captivated.
This book will have you hooked. It shows the psychology of the parents and of the son who went on a “Columbine” in his school. This book really digs deep and brings up a number of parent/child issues most of us would like to ignore. I call it the ugly side of mother hood. What happens to the young white upscale people in the novel is only six degrees away from a poor Black or Hispanic woman living in the inner city.
The mother Eva is writing her ex-spouse Franklin about her feelings about their marriage relationship and what lead to their son Kevin turning into a mass murderer at his school ala Columbine. To say that Eva is the antithesis of what is a mother is an understatement. Eva is the living breathing definition of a woman who can get pregnant, give birth yet not be a mother. She is woman who on the surface seems to have no maternal instincts whatsoever, yet with the birth of her second child a girl we see a change in Eva. Eva is a sociopath who has merely reproduced one of her own kind. For her having son Kevin was a disastrous experiment gone awry.
Like many couples from all walks of life and economic levels they do not count the cost of having a child. Eva and Franklin based their decision to have Kevin as a requirement, duty and human/marital obligation. However as one delves deeper into the book Kevin is not a sympathetic creature. In fact as we delve further and further into Kevin’s psyche via his mother’s letters we find him to be incorrigible from infancy right up until the time of the massacre.
Children as they are to discover are neither an accessory nor a fun hobby. They demand time, attention and they have their own unique personalities. Children also innately know whether or not their parents or caretakers love them, which causes them to respond, react, cling unnaturally or lash out at family, friends, teachers & schoolmates.
It also brings up the issue as to whether a child can born without the ability to empathize with or care about other human beings even for the parents who brought them into the world.
A few months ago I read The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid about a woman who is emotionally disconnected on many levels from nearly all the humans she encounters. A comparison between the two novels and the two alienated characters, one seen the other grappling with a ghost.
A common thread running through Xuela and Eva is how they view children, not as a desired blessing but as possessive alien beings or unwelcome parasites. Children in their minds are an interference with normal life. Xuela chooses to extinguish any life form within her even before gestation has begun. Eva transmits her resentment and disgust to Kevin from the time she discovers she is pregnant.
Eva is haunted by a imp she has given birth to whereas Xuela is haunted by the mother she never knew, yet still feels responsible for her early death.
Xuela and Eva did not lose the capacity to love children; it was never within them in the first place. Both women represent types of women as non maternal figures, something that frightens and challenges the status quo in societies that have predefined places for women. How can women be sexually functional yet negate the very qualities that should be inherent to the female species. The hypothesis being if you lay down with me, you should not only want my seed but the child that results from that seed. Xuela represents an extreme nonconformist type as she not only rejects the seed but rejects the man and the notion of male superiority. The men who become involved with her sexually somehow know this on a subconscious level. Those men might possess her body but not her soul. Xuela’s only focus and secret torment is the mother she never met, yet sees in her dreams. It is significant that Xuela only sees her mother’s back and feet as she descends down a ladder. Many psychological theories can be read into this however I believe each reader should come to a conclusion of the dreams meaning on their own. Xuela unlike Eva is also in a fight to keep her identity in a world, place and time in which women were seen exclusively as sex objects and breeders.
Neither book has a tidy ending much like life and relationships in reality.
The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
The key to great writing is great story telling and Jamaica Kincaid is a great storyteller. Her prose is beautiful, spare, blunt, compact and to the point. Her writing cuts you to the heart. Of course I’m biased because I love Jamaica Kincaid. She is one of the best raconteurs ever! So engrossed am I in her storyline that even though I’m eager for the next development I’m saddened by the ever expanding vignettes because I know that the book will end and my foray with the characters will end.
The title itself is intriguing since an autobiography by definition is an account written by him or herself since the mother in the story is deceased everything is seen through the eyes of the daughter, Xuela.
This immediately sets the story on its head providing an inverse tale of a mother/daughter relationship without the mother being physically able to tell her story. This novel introspection of a woman haunted through a lifetime by her own guilt at perhaps killing her only opportunity to have experienced true love.
Xuela continues to search for love always via the mother she never knew, the mother whom though she never directly comes out and says so, Xuela believes she killed just by being born.
Xuela experiences a dichotomy of self. Surrounded by others, in the midst of a sea of humanity and even during intimate relations with various lovers she is disconnected from other humans in a way unfathomable for most of us.
Basically unloved and unwanted by an indifferent father Xuela disassociates from every other man in her life. Xuela never developed the ability to experience love fully with soul as well as body, even with men who become her “lovers”. Her lovers and the people she interacts with are like ghost figures, much like the mother she envisions in her dreams, never quite fully accessible to Xuela’s heart.
Ms. Kincaid explores the many levels of Xuela’s dissonance with her fellow humans through the race and gender restrictions of the time period. In fact she rather struck me as having a sociopathic personality. Xuela appears incapable of having any positive human emotions towards others around her except when doing so might seem to benefit her. A hidden barely reveled guilt surfaces in these two women causing them shame in what might have been
Ms. Kincaid’s books deal with many mother/daughter issues. The always seems to be that undercurrent of sadness, pain, and displeasure in the midst of island paradise. The Autobiography of My Mother is a narrative on the mother the daughter never knew and Annie John, the novel I’m currently reading is a tale of the deteriorating relationship between a mother and daughter who know each other perhaps all too well.
Both protagonists in The Autobiography of My Mother and Annie John are women whose lives are rhapsodies with discordant notes and chords. Both novels are in-depth psychological studies of young women on the edge.
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