Sunday, 4 July 2010

HARROWING, PROVOCATIVE AND MASTERFUL

I regard myself as a charitable reader, in that I don’t often give up on a book, unless it’s wasting my time. At worst I’ll give it a hundred pages. So I’ve no idea why I put this one down one day a month or so ago, reading four or five other novels, before picking it up again. I remember being stunned by the quality of the writing, aware I was in the hands of a master, but something gave. I was appraising some 600 short stories at the time, so perhaps my mind was geared to the shorter form.

Anywho, as intended, I got back to the last 200 pages today. Now, it takes a lot for fiction to unsettle me, perhaps one or two books a year will really get under my skin, where not only am I in awe of the writing, but the story has got me by the throat, or balls, or other appendages, to the extent where I’ve forgotten I’m reading and am simply experiencing a remarkable book.

As I’m probably one of the last people to get around to reading this, I’ll keep the review brief. Part psychological thriller, part philosophical inquiry, Shriver’s narrator, through epistolary means, recounts the fifteen years or so of her son’s life before he massacres nine classmates, an English teacher and a caretaker in the school’s gymnasium. We learn Eva’s near absence of maternal instinct is exacerbated by a son who, from a remarkably young age, demonstrates a propensity for acts ranging from the mischievous to outright malevolence. Ultimately the reader is left to determine what part, if any, Kevin’s parenting played in his nature, which, if you’re interested in, what can feel (in more benign circumstances) a trite debate, will prove intriguing. As a story, you’ll need to get beyond a couple of sticking points to reap the book’s full rewards. For one We Need To… will feel overwritten for some, as Eva, in increasingly macabre hindsight, deconstructs every facet of Kevin’s upbringing and the familial dynamics, not to mention cultural and social influences. And some will find Kevin almost absurdly precocious, a caricature that, fortunately, bears little relation to any children we’ll come across. But once you accept these, you’ll be drawn in to a voice so compelling, so controlled and masterly, and a story that subtly gathers pace until, in the shocking denouement, you simply cannot draw breath as the final events are told.

Kevin (and perhaps Eva) are two extraordinary characters you won't forget in a hurry.

9 comments:

Jen Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen Campbell said...

You are not the last person to read this; I am guilty, though I am in the process of reading it at the moment. I haven't read all of your post, for fear of spoilers, but I'll come back when I've finished the book.

Also, I found this interesting: http://stuartevers.blogspot.com/2010/06/lionel-makes-messy.html

x

TOM J VOWLER said...

Hi Jen. I was careful not to leave any spoilers, nothing you don't get in the blurb. Boy can that woman write. Be interested to know what you think after. x

Jack Harris said...

I've always thought the book should be exploited as a novel form of contraception. Unfortunately her follow-up is a total stinker - why did she choose to write about British snooker! She'd have been better sticking to what she knew.

TOM J VOWLER said...

The follow up did get panned, didn't it, Jack.

Catharine Withenay said...

I found the book unnerving. There was a period in the middle which was slow-moving (perhaps that was when you initially gave up) but by the end it was totally gripping. At the time I was on my own with the children and I had disturbed sleep for several nights as my brain got around the emotions of it. So a definite thumbs up (in a scary way!) - not many books have moved me like this.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks for popping by, Catharine. I agree about the book's pace. And it's been a long time since a book's unnerved my like that.

KarenR said...

Apart from the "horror stuff" towards the end, this book seriously rattled me because I felt she took hold of pretty ordinary parental emotions and then pushed it to the absolute extreme. For example, there can't be many Mummys who - if they are honest - haven't looked at their infant at some point and wondered "WHO the hell are YOU?" at least once, nor many who haven't wondered, when a child is naughty, if the child was just being a child or was really a malevolent little demon. But these are usually fleeting emotions borne out of tiredness or exasperation. Lionel Shriver just pushes and pushes these fleeting emotions to the nth degree and leaves the reader reeling. Well, this reader anyway!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Karen. Not having children myself, I'm sure this book was a different experience for me than it is for parents. It does receive criticism for Kevin's precocity, but I loved this.