Janet Phillips reviews the book by Lionel Shriver which won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2005. As she explains, the book paints a picture of motherhood and parenting that is far from mainstream.
This book is both a literary feat and an excoriating account of the gender divide in parenting. When it was first published in the States there were reports in the British press about how it had shocked American readers and how Shriver’s agent had initially refused to send the manuscript out to publishers. So I read it prepared to be repulsed, but instead found myself not only profoundly moved but also simply gripped by the story: it’s a brilliant psychological thriller.
Early on in the book, we know that Kevin is in prison, convicted of murdering nine people (seven classmates, a teacher and a cafeteria worker) in his school gym. Eva Katchadourian, his mother, gradually tells the story of his life in a series of letters – written in elegant, discursive prose – to her now absent husband, Franklin.
The story she tells is not just an illustration of an extraordinarily horrible child, malicious from the moment of birth, but also that of a woman whose achievements are utterly annihilated by motherhood. Before becoming pregnant she is founder and CEO of a publishing company and earning more money than her freelance partner, Franklin. But Kevin proves so difficult to look after that au pairs desert them and Eva is forced to stay at home, witness to her son’s increasingly nasty and antagonistic behaviour.
Shriver has her narrator write in an uncompromisingly opinionated style. It can be off-putting: she can’t tell you anything without making a comment about it, often in a witheringly sarcastic tone. As a reader you don’t often like her and this is one of the characteristics that makes the book so strong. You are invited to question how far Kevin’s character has been formed by this prickly woman who openly admits that childbirth “left her unmoved” and that in the first few minutes of holding her yowling baby she felt “the first stirrings of what, appallingly, I can only call boredom”. Yet this portrait of a difficult baby is instantly recognisable, and there are many women who will tell you that breast-feeding is surprisingly, upsettingly difficult, and that some babies refuse to do it, no matter how determined their mothers are.
In her letters, Eva is confessing these feelings for the first time to her husband, and, since there is never a reply from him, she takes pains to imagine his response or to remind him of his point of view at the time. What emerges is that Franklin, though once cool enough to agree that Kevin should take Eva’s surname in the interests of equality, increasingly believes his barely verbal son over his wife’s illustrations of dysfunctional behaviour. She thinks, for example, that Kevin is refusing to learn how to “toilet train” (up to the age of six) so that he has the satisfaction of watching her go to the hard work of changing his nappy. But Franklin thinks that in order to believe this, Eva must be going mad.
When Eva gets pregnant again and has a daughter, the family align themselves along the gender divide: mum and daughter vs. father and son. It’s heart-breaking. You end up stunned at how utterly degraded Eva becomes through her role as a mother. Her husband, neighbours and the law courts alternately treat her with contempt or blame her for every action her son has made. On the one hand, before the massacre, she must be psychologically disturbed because of what she is accusing Kevin of, and on the other, it is all right for her to look after him every hour of the day, when she’d be so much more use directing her company. She scrutinises her own choices and behaviour from all angles. It is not so far from here to a mother in the UK reading survey after survey that looks for links between her career decisions and her child’s GCSE maths results or aggression in the playground.
Critics have argued that Kevin’s aggression, right from birth, is exaggerated, or at least unbelievable if you take what Eva says verbatim (did he really sabotage a neighbour’s bike to cause an accident, or deliberately blind his little sister?). But the story isn’t just about nature vs. nurture. It’s about how society, or more specifically men, treat mothers and sons. The character of Kevin is therefore exaggerated: he is a kind of cipher for the way a boy-child can consume his mother’s life. It is Lionel Shriver’s supreme achievement to get to grips with the complexities of these relationships and extrapolate from them one of the worst imaginable outcomes.
So does the story ultimately invite you to deliver a verdict? There is a bleak twist towards the denouement which tips the balance. Eva is a victim of motherhood and through her Shriver is telling us, in a fiercely unsentimental style, that to be a mother, even now, is to be made a scapegoat for the bad things in life that nobody can quite explain.