Shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Kevin Khatchadourian kills seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher. He is visited in prison by his mother, Eva, who narrates in a series of letters to her estranged husband, Franklin, the story of Kevin’s upbringing. For this powerful, shocking novel, Lionel Shriver was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction.
It’s 8th November 2000 and Eva Khatchadourian writes to her estranged husband Franklin. Their son Kevin has been convicted of carrying out a high school shooting. She’s lost her house, her business, and her marriage has broken down. Through a series of letters to Franklin she sets out her thoughts as to why Kevin did what he did and whether she and Franklin played their own role in the tragedy.
Eva’s not easy to relate to. Her solitude and isolation has made her self-reflective and her vocabulary borders on the pretentious. She’s brittle, by turns defensive and aggressive in her letters and she commits the cardinal sin of admitting that she always found it difficult to love her son. The battle of wills that she describes as having taken place between her and Kevin since his very birth make for difficult reading and the reader has to decide to what extent Eva’s prejudices colour her account.
It’s a very powerful book and it’s easy to see why it won the Orange Prize in 2005. However, there were some things that didn’t quite work for me. The relationship between Eva and Franklin is one of stark opposites – Eva’s a liberal who’s travelled the world, Franklin a conservative who finds US locations to stand in for world scenery. Not only is the dichotomy too obvious but it’s difficult to relate to Franklin’s refusal to countenance Eva’s complaints about Kevin, even when third party accounts seem to give it credibility and while there is some explanation through the simultaneous slow breakdown of their marriage, it makes some of the scenes frustrating. The depiction of Eva and Franklin’s daughter also never quite rings too as she is so obviously idealised by Eva.
Much is made of the final twist but it’s obvious from page 1 and is not really the point of the story (which is the account of Eva’s journey). The best scenes are those between Eva and the incarcerated Kevin, which remain a battle of wills but where Shriver slowly allows another side to be shown to the boy as Eva’s battle with herself, her memories and her guilt work themselves out.
It’s a difficult book, in some ways a flawed book but it is a fascinating read and one that makes you think both about the phenomena of high school shootings but also motherhood and as such I heartily recommend it.
This isn’t a perfect book, but it is powerful and Shriver has found a way to tie in the tragedy of high school shootings with an examination of motherhood and what makes a good mother in a way that resonates with you for a long time afterwards.
Cross-posted to books and bookworming.