Nearly ten years after everyone else did it, I have just finished Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I do think that this time lag meant that my reading experience missed some of the intensity it might otherwise have had. Debates about motherhood, styles of mothering, the existence or otherwise of the innate maternal instinct and so on have been so thoroughly thrashed out (helped in no small part by the birth of internet spaces in which to hold such conversations) that it’s hard to feel the outrage or even just the incredulity of contemporaneous reactions.
Besides, I think that the space Kevin might have held in my head is already occupied by my reading of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child. It is twenty years since I read that novel, and to this day it unsettles and unnerves me to the point that when we moved to Abu Dhabi I didn’t dare put it into storage with my other books, and it is one of the few books that I brought with me, even though I know I will never read it again.
I credit my reading of that book with my inability to conceive a third child. My thinking goes along the highly rational lines that having had two children, I am simply being greedy asking for more. Furthermore, I have this feeling that my subconscious mind knows that the real reason I want three children is not because I really do love having children, but because I just want to be in the three children club, and my sub-subconsciousness, aware of this lust and greed and avarice, but loving and caring for me anyway, is protecting me from the punishment that would surely befall me were I too have another child.
You don’t need to tell me how bloody ridiculous and flawed and just plain wrong that is on so many levels, but there you go, that’s where my mind sometimes takes me. I explained it to the mister once. He gave me that look, the one that is a sort of WTF, but also shows his fleeting understanding of the depths to which our imaginations differ. He prefers the more straightforward biological explanation even though that leaves him completely unable to explain the existence of our first two children.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, Kevin.
Despite the absence of the extreme reaction I probably would have had to the book if I’d read it when everyone else did, I was left in awe by the strength of the prose. Here, I should offer you an example of what I mean, but I am going to make the completely unoriginal point that reading on a kindle just isn’t the same as reading a hardcopy book. I did not make nearly enough notes or highlights as I read, mostly because it is difficult to do so on a kindle without interrupting your reading. When I am reading a book and I want to leave a reminder, I dog-ear the bottom corner of the page, an action which requires no particular thought and is barely a whisper of a distraction. Highlighting on kindles is clunky and distracting to say the least. Furthermore, it is no fun flicking through a kindle book to find passages of note. Where simply fanning the pages of a hardcopy book gives me a sense of what it is I’m looking for, flicking through kindle pages is clinical and unrewarding.
So I’ll have to ask you to take my word for it that the prose is awesome.
My main problem – the thing that I had to overcome as I was reading it – was simply that I never believed in the relationship between Franklin and Eva. It seemed so unlikely that they would have been attracted to each other. One of the passages I did highlight, at the 86 percent mark of the novel was this:
From a young age there was only one thing I had always wanted, along with getting out of Racine, Wisconsin. And that was a good man who loved me and would stay true. Anything else was ancillary, a bonus, like frequentflier miles. I could have lived without children. I couldn’t live without you.
It made me think, Really? Are you really saying that? Because in the 85 percent of the novel leading to this point, I have read nothing that makes me believe this of you.
It didn’t stop me being in awe of the writing.
On the third day of reading, I nearly gave up. The thought of returning to Eva’s world held no interest for me. I was thinking that ‘some people are just born that way’ was a boring way to answer a fascinating question. But as this is my return to deep and intentional reading I had to stick with it. I’m glad I did, because I loved the ending. It was an excellent blend of resolution and surprise. I’m not talking about the twist in the tail, which, like most twists is less of a twist and more of an extension of the tale.
I’m sure I liked reading this book. I loved it. But I’m undecided about adding Lionel Shriver to my list. I’m still pondering that.