Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A riddle...

...wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (as Churchill said about Russia, and I say about the Kevin himself). Hooray for Kirsty, Val and Helen S, who encouraged us to read/hear about Orange prize winners, including We need to talk about Kevin. I was right about the book - it WAS superbly written - but wrong in every other respect. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sorry - this'll be long, but I've found the book, and your posts, excessively stimulating.

Format: Like most of you, I shy away from letter formats (excellent explanation of why they tend to be weak, Kirsty, - thanks!) but settled quickly into this, and came to understand why it was clever and well-considered. I think Shriver has written an absolute masterpiece of fiction. I also agree with many of its parts, but not the whole that she adds them up to.

Characters: As Valerie pinpointed, they're extreme characters. Brilliantly-drawn in general, but sometimes OTT. The review comments about lifting the lid on families were certainly apt, but ultimately, I felt, overdone. For instance, Franklin. I found his pre-children persona disarmingly real, and the gulf between him and Eva in how they respond to having children perfectly credible. But he turned, I felt, into a caricature of what Shriver is worried fatherhood does to people, rather than a believable development from that man she's portrayed. Shriver would have been more convincing, and more worrying, if she had less of an agenda about interesting-people-turned-dull-by-parenthood (as per articles Shriver has written). For me, such things weaked it as an expose but strengthened it as a novel.

Narrator: Yes, Valerie - that's it - Eva was a nightmare to live with! She's so set on preserving her time with Franklin, but can't stay at home for 5 minutes, tricks him into Celia and shows nothing but contempt for his parenting of Kevin. It's always: Kevin is awful but Franklin can't see it - never that Franklin loves his son and treats him accordingly. If I'm to treat Eva as a realistic character, I have to conclude that she's deluded or lying. In the fascinating Radio 4 talk, Shriver points out that Eva is actually determined not to be found responsible for Kevin. Indeed, her very frankness on her demerits is itself partly a tool to stop us making any WORSE judgements of her. While Eva's insistence on the obviousness of Kevin's evil is - presumably - to show her detachment from it and to absolve her, this is at the expense of the credibility of her love for Franklin. She chooses to portray a stupid father and callous husband, who we cannot seriously be expected to believe she still loves. I'd argue that Eva can't love anyone properly, even given a choice of 3 very different people. So can we trust a word she says on relationships?

It would be fascinating, I agree, to have Franklin's response. Rather in the manner of Carol Shields' Happenstance, where you read one spouse's account and then the other's and both are equally convincing. If for nothing else but to see how Shriver resolves the question - is Franklin really so dense or is Eva misrepresenting him?

But Shriver isn't really interested in Franklin as a father, is she? He's a caricature of fatherhood. Celia clearly bores her to sobs and - despite whatever she may say, I think Celia bores Eva. Did anyone else think that relationship felt real? On the radio, Shriver said she liked Kevin. By the end I, like Kirsty, felt something like liking towards him. But only by not thinking about what he'd actually done. Shriver doesn't believe Kevin's evil. Um, as Simon Schama said of 9/11, "if that isn't evil, I don't know what is". Given Eva's dislike of children, parenthood etc, I can easily believe that she'd find a bright, mysterious child - who seemed fairly adult from birth! - fascinating. It gets her out of engaging with children. Or - perish the thought! - being changed for the better by having them. Shriver doesn't have a positive thing to say about parenthood, does she? In a sideswipe Brian, who dotes on his children, is having an affair - mentioned as if that automatically disproved his love for his daughters. Kevin's very rejection of Eva's efforts to treat him like a child are, I think, partly to vindicate Eva's dislike of children, childish things, and men who throw themselves into fatherhood. Part of the end message, surely, is that Kevin preferred his mother's approach to his father's.

Shriver said she thought Eva was 95-99% good mother, with the implication being that the missing bit was actually loving your child. Yes, you can't guarantee to enjoy the company of any one, but are there many children that would regard not being wanted or loved as only a very small part of the deal? Is that partly why Kevin is so scornful of her efforts - he doesn't want perfect imitation parenting, he wants something real (and flawed).

I personally think that the most interesting characters - and the ones which interested Shriver most - are the ones who are not embodying ideas as such, but are free to act as real people. eg Franklin pre-chidren, Eva and - most of all - Kevin. Shriver's lack of pat answers for why teenagers do these awful shootings is, I think, entirely accurate and makes Kevin much more intriguing. I would argue that when Shriver creates a character principally for a function, they tend towards cardboard cut-outs eg Celia. I mean, even within the world of the novel, she is conceived simply to answer Eva's questions.

I think Shriver shows very convincingly how the interaction in families can be very painful, with adults not very good at being parents and children not very good at being dependants. I can see how the parents need to be at odds here because it stops the situation being addressed earlier and makes for more dramatic tension. But again, I did feel that the marriage degenerated largely for the benefit of the plot. Kirsty - do you think that's a fair comment? I know you have views on characters needing to have a life of their own (which sometimes suprises their author).

Perhaps the bits I valued most were the bits which were only tangentially necessary for the plot and were in fact included solely on merit. Astonishing language - for example the term "Thursday". Enlightening, witty observations such as "plastic dirt" indeed, Helen S. Characterisation - Franklin and Eva's personalities when they're not actually bringing children up (ie both before and after living with Kevin).

I am delighted to have been obliged to read it, and am very grateful to Shriver for writing such a brilliant novel, but such a polemical one too, thus making it surprisingly palatable to those of us with rather more comfortable family lives.