This is very nearly the definition of a literary horror novel. Quite popular among the literati and the winner of at least one prestigious award, it’s a relentlessly contemplative and intellectual—and, at over 400 pages, vastly overlong—treatment of material that will seem familiar to most horror fans.
The depiction of the inner world of a murderous psychopath is a popular horror novel conceit that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN does one better, offering up a point of view that’s even more off-putting: that of the psychopathic protagonist’s obnoxiously snooty New York intellectual mother! That woman is Eva Khatchadourian, who narrates the book in the form of letters to her husband Franklin. The subject is their son Kevin, a high schooler who, it’s revealed early on, has perpetrated a violent act, the particulars of which we don’t learn until the final pages (hint: it involves a bow-and-arrow). Until then we’re subjected to Eva’s relentlessly snooty ruminations about her son’s upbringing.
Eva makes it clear early on that she never wanted to be a mother. She looks down on women who harbor maternal instincts, as she does on most everyone else, only going through with the pregnancy because the more conservative Franklin wants it. Eva’s feelings for him, as expressed in her letters, are quite complicated, consisting of haughty contempt mingled with declarations of true love that seem out of character—the reasons for which are, like Kevin’s crimes, made clear in the final pages.
Kevin is a terror from the moment of his birth, evincing little in the way of excitement or even emotion. His sociopathic tendencies, however, are but an extreme form of his mother’s own natural born arrogance, as he himself points out to her (““Is there anything, or anybody,” he asked, looking me in the eye, “you don’t feel superior to?””). Appropriately enough, it’s Eva who alone understands Kevin’s true nature, with Franklin remaining clueless about his son’s innate evil, even after he commits a number of questionable acts.
Those acts include ruining one of the eyes of his younger sister Celia with drain cleaner. Celia is conceived by Eva to distract herself from Kevin’s creepiness, but Eva isn’t much more enthused about Celia, despising her daughter’s overly sweet, non-confrontational nature. Truly, Eva and Kevin are a mother-son match made in Hell.
From a thematic and character standpoint WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is indeed an impressive novel. Eva is as distinct and well-rounded an individual as any fictional personage you’re likely to find. That, alas, is part of the problem, as her snarky aloofness is a constant irritant. Reading this book is akin to being stuck with a particularly obnoxious New York snob whose voice and overall tone are representative of why so much of the country so vehemently despises such folk, and why true horror fans tend to scoff at books like this one.