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Lionel Shriver
As a bookgroup we read THE FIFTH CHILD by Doris Lessing which provoked very strong discussion. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN book also poses questions about parental ‘fault’ or inherent ‘evil’ in a chid. Why do think writers are so drawn to the nature/nurture theme?
Novelists—if they’re doing their job—are necessarily concerned with character. Both genetic and environmental determinism are flattening, while the interaction between nature and nurture is delightfully three-dimensional. After all, parents consistently testify that different babies exhibit a distinctive temperament from birth; yet we’d all accept that being raised chained to a radiator and fed from a dog dish would have an effect on how a kid turns out. What draws a good novelist to this issue is the exhilarating complexity of where character comes from, what it is, whether we have free will and to what degree. The other draw is that there is no clear answer. If there were, we’d all have arrived at it years ago, and there’d be nothing to write about.
Why does Eva perceive Franklin as relentlessly supportive to Kevin, and deliberately in denial of her observations? Does Franklin really see it all and chooses instead to side with Kevin to punish Eva?
Whether Franklin is truly blind to Kevin’s darkness is up for debate. Franklin wills himself to have a happy family. As Eva remarks, “Is it really called naivete when you’re naďve on purpose?” Franklin clearly believes that if he has faith in his son, that very faith will help to manifest the kind of child he hopes for. Moreover, Eva and Franklin are on opposite sides regarding Kevin; what should be the cooperative project of parenthood early on becomes a war. Thus they are both invested in seeing nothing but wickedness and sunniness, respectively, and neither’s version of events, or of Kevin, is reliable.
Why do agencies and authorities play such a woefully low profile in the upbringing of Kevin? Does Eva feel let down by this, or is it no more that she expects, as she claims that it is only very few people who recognise his malevolence and are 'on to him'?
Your author has very little faith in agencies and authorities, and by sheer coincidence neither does her protagonist. Thus psychologists, counsellors, etc. play nothing but a background role in the novel. Eva and her creator have been criticized by readers for not sending Kevin for therapy at the age of six. But I have been most unimpressed by the results of therapy for my friends; moreover, the behaviours that Kevin displays in his childhood are not, if you shake off Eva’s prejudiced story-telling, alarming or outside the range of the normal. Of course, Kevin is indeed sent to a psychiatrist as an adolescent (which many of these why-didn’t-the-parents-seek-professional-help readers fail to notice). But he’s a wiley, manipulative little fellow, isn’t he, and merely uses a prescription for Prozac to plan his post-Thursday judicial defence—since Prozac has been identified as having a psychotic effect on a small minority of patients. I suppose the bottom line is that I was not interested in pursuing the now terribly trite psychiatrist’s probing of a character as a narrative strategy. I thought these all too familiar scenes would be boring. However, I did like the idea that the teacher Kevin murders is “on to him,” which is one of the reasons he selects her as a victim.
Kevin has a few (unpleasant) adolescent friendships. Do you think he seeks out other malevolent people, or prefers to keep his ideas un-shared and un-diluted? How much does Kevin actually need anyone? What would Kevin say if he were allowed to speak?
Last first: Kevin’s inner life is deliberately left up to the reader’s imagination, and I certainly wouldn’t violate that approach now by putting his “real” interior thoughts on a web site. After all, we are each privy only to our own inner thoughts, and the mental life of everyone else on the planet we can only infer from what they do and say. (Pretty frightening, when you think about it.) This is certainly the case with parents and their adolescent children. Early on in this project, I downloaded an article whose content I no longer remember, but whose headline has stayed with me: “Our Kids Lead Secret Lives.” All kids lead secret lives. All of us, at any age, lead secret lives. That said, Kevin is “allowed” to speak in the novel—he’s cryptic, but not nonverbal. It’s up to you to conclude what you like from his dialogue. Does Kevin need anyone? Of course. Who has no need of love, of companionship, of comfort? But Kevin resents these needs; he associates them with weakness. The lesson that Kevin learns in the squirt gun story—when he realizes that if he simply doesn’t care about the toy anymore, he denies his mother the power inherent in being able to withhold it from him—he applies to his emotional needs as well. As for Kevin’s friendships, I left these opaque. When I was a kid, my parents had no idea what was really going on between me and my peers—more the norm than not, I suspect—so I tried to duplicate this cluelessness in Eva and Franklin.
Eva repeatedly claims, to the very end, to love her son. What are your thoughts on this?
Love—well, what does that mean? Eva parrots what she is supposed to say as a mother throughout the novel, but she doesn’t feel sincere. She questions the pat parental assertion, “I love you, but I don’t always like you.” This is, for once, an authorial sentiment. That is, if “love” means anything, I do not see how it can encompass dislike. If you are experiencing dislike for your child, you are, ipso facto in my view, NOT feeling “love” at that point in time. Thus if we can at least agree that this amorphous term does not extend to aversion, the only point at which I believe Eva when she claims to “love” her son—“whether from laziness or exhaustion”—is on the very last page. Which, when I wrote it, made me cry. I am not interested in easy, rote, sentimental love. The love on page 400 is very hard-won.
Is it possible for a parent to forgive her child - especially when he robs her so completely of those she loves?
I don’t think Eva does forgive Kevin—except in the sense that by the very end she is willing to look toward the future, to finally live on the other side of what he did. She has no choice. He’s all she’s got left. So transformative and traumatic was “Thursday” that it’s only the players in that drama who can understand her. Since all the other players are out of the picture, that means Kevin, period. To the degree that “Thursday” was a gambit to win his mother’s affection and eliminate the competition for her love, the irony is: it worked.
Our hearts went out to Eva, in all the terrible things she has to come to terms with. In your opinion, what is the hardest thing for Eva to accept?
Not that the atrocity either was or wasn’t her fault, but that whose fault it was doesn’t matter. As Eva allows in the last chapter, “Maybe all along I’ve been asking myself the wrong question.” The whole book she’s been wrestling with blame, just like her nemesis Mary Woolford. But blame is no solace and no solution. Something awful happened, and finger-pointing—even at yourself—doesn’t make it unhappen. In fact, dwelling on culpability keeps you in the past, and eats you up.
One of the polarities between Eva and Franklin is her anti-Americanism and his patriotism. You live and work in the UK. What are your views on the US today?
I’ve been an expat now for twenty years. For much of that time, I’ve been very critical of the US. OK, I’m still critical. But with more forgiveness and more affection. With a recognition that everyone has to be from somewhere, and you don’t get to choose your place of birth; that there’s something wrong with every culture, too. And most of all, with a realization that I am American, and I can’t talk about Americans in the third person as “they.” If I’m going to make sweeping generalizations about the country, I have to include myself. It’s hard to travel as an American these days; no matter how lightly you pack, you’re carrying a huge amount of baggage as far as the rest of the world is concerned. You’re just one little person who got a notion to go visit France, and then suddenly you represent Bush and the Iraq War and energy dependence and economic imperialism … Bit much. Eva is lower down on this evolutionary ladder. I wanted her superciliousness in relation to her own country to look unattractive. It was my intention that Kevin picks up much of his own sense of superiority and aloofness from his mother.
Lionel Shriver

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