I recently read – in one intensive, all-encompassing go – We Need to Talk About Kevin. I know that Lionel Shriver wrote it in 2003, and we are now almost a decade on, in 2012; I know too that it was made into a film last year, so I am well aware that I am behind the times. I did not read it when it was published – or even when it won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 – and I did not see the film when it came out. But I have read it now, and it has made a deep impression; so deep that I am glad that I didn’t read it in 2003 when I was in the midst of having children, as it means that I have had nine years of innocence, not having read it, and I am glad too that I have not seen the film, because I think now that I will choose not to see it, my eyes opened by this terrible, dreadful, completely captivating and painfully engrossing tale of a mother’s relationship with her children, and with her son in particular.
It is of course extraordinarily well written – rich in nuance and story-telling, and entirely gripping. I would recommend it wholeheartedly; I hesitate only because of its awful, heart-wrenching subject content. For – as you will know if you have ever explored even just beyond the title – you will know that this is a tale of a boy who grows up to be one of a line of the now all-too-familiar ‘High School killers’ who make the headlines in the US on a depressingly – and shockingly – regular basis. It is a story of how his mother fears and suspects that his relationship with her, from even before he was born, may be at the root of his sociopathy, despite the evidence which we see to the contrary. We want to know why he did it, and as the tapestry of events unfolds before us, we desperately want to know that this could not happen to us, or to our children. Jenni Murray had it spot-on – commenting on the story, she wrote that it is “a book that acknowledges what many women worry about but never express: the fear of becoming a mother and the terror of what kind of child one might bring into the world”.
Becoming a mother means exposing yourself, rawly, in a way that you never needed to before having children. You are responsible for your child – jointly, of course, but what mother in moments of silent uncertainty or fear does not feel herself primarily responsible for how her child turns out? Fathers experience the same fears, but again, we do not dare talk of them. We work to deny bleak thoughts, to reassure ourselves that our children will turn out all right, and we fight not to drop into the blackness of ‘what if …?’ These are the horrors of motherhood – that something will happen to our child, or that we – through negligence or weakness – will cause something to go wrong, and that that ‘something’ will blight their life and ours forever. We Need to Talk About Kevin is unremitting in its exposition of a mother’s thoughts and feelings, and part of me feels that all parents should experience it, if only, through the insights it forces upon its readers, to grow in reaction the courage and determination that evil (for what other word can we give it?) shall not triumph, and that we shall together – all of us – rise to this task of making sure that our children live and contribute in the world in the way in which we know they can – with positivity, joy and compassion.
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the entire world. Our children can bring us heartache because of the love that they unleash in us – a love that makes us vulnerable, but a love that can make us indescribably strong too. We live in a world which buffets our parents as well as our children; we owe it to one another to reach out to share the support and care for our children. We have a collective responsibility to bring up our children, and to work to create a better world. Humbly, unassumingly, unjudging of others, but strong in our sense that there is a right and a good path ahead, we can do this. We are all in this together.
Actually, We Need to Talk About Our Children and Our World. And we need to do it now.