My bookclub asked us to read this book and despite initially putting it down so it didn’t taint my bid for foster care, I picked it up again – like the helpless compulsion to pick at a scab. This is what I thought.
Lionel Shriver painfully unpicks the stitched wound formed through a perceived conspiracy of silence shared by mothers everywhere who effuse of the joys of being a parent and censure the trials, and in so doing become complicit in the myth that if a child is bad, it’s usually the mother’s fault.
I felt the whole novel was the epitome of Kevin. Clever, astute, articulate and loaded with a mesmerizing vocabulary – yet a story hidden behind a sardonic smile, and a grim glib view of life and the point of living. How can we stand in judgment when we are never allowed inside Kevin’s head. He has no personality except that which he constructs in opposition to his parents. His motives are much like his bedroom plain and neat and ordered into meaningless blandness with the only colour the Robin Hood book, the only book he seems to value from that two week sojourn of illness where he stops expecting to never grow up and becomes a real boy.
The enduring emotion I feel, having turned the last page, and as Eva makes up a bland bedroom with plain clean sheets, is disappointment. The same permanent expression on Franklin’s face in the end, so maybe that makes me the puerile “daddish” kind who believes, in the face of all other evidence, parenthood is worthwhile endeavour. I can easily go along with the conflicted I-am-supposed-to-feel-something-as-a-mother – I have been somewhere similar. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer it was as if I sat in objective observance of my own grief, watching to see how my face twisted, how I was supposed to cry and panic and rail at the injustice of fate – but for a terrifying moment, I felt absolutely nothing. But this is not sustainable and neither I think is Kevin’s lack of character.
There are no answers proffered – just dark commentary on the useless pursuit of “stuff” that is presumably the lives of spoiled, rich, white, middle class people. I empathized with Eva’s indecision around parenting as anyone who has given up adult pursuits, even briefly, to surround themselves in brightly coloured plastic and inane conversations about food and video games and cartoon characters. But even I, jaded and childless, have experienced the unabashed love of a toddler. And in that moment you can make the concessions needed to maintain your adult self, once immersed in the monotonous Peter Pan like montage of childhood pursuits. The doubt he creates in Eva’s character is a monolithic, enduring burden that shadows every beautifully crafted yet ultimately pointless paragraph.
Disturbingly, I was at turns annoyed, irritated, shocked and disbelieving, yet at the same time I thought these were all the emotions I should be feeling, and the fact that I was cognizant of this, suddenly made all those emotions artificial. I found it hard to accept that a six week old baby could have the cognitive wherewithal to manipulate adults. But then maybe we were supposed to think that, because it was written as Kevin’s perspective from his mother’s eyes, who never really knew him. That Kevin is one dimensional, makes it much easier to sympathise with Eva who is unlikeable.
The whole novel seems pointless and I guess that is the point. And for this literary trick I feel cheated because by removing the complexity he allows us only to come to the trite conclusion that no one really knows anything. And that simply just isn’t a good enough reason to pick at that sore wound surrounding the uncertaninties, misgivings and enduring doubts that are secreted away by any mother in Western society who is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. The fact he is a man picking at this wound makes it all the more galling to me. I have sice discovered that Lionel is a woman – it doesn’t change how I feel about the book but it is interesting and now I feel a bit foolish, and should have done my research!!
If we are to deconstruct motherhood, to take it apart and have the meaningless debate around nature and nurture, which John Irving so eloquently puts as “..a no win argument – that business of what we’re born with and what our environment does to us. And it’s a boring argument, because it simplifies the mysteries that attend both our birth and our growth” (A Prayer for Owen Meany page 101) – then we should at the very least honour the mothers with something. A boring argument indeed, like Kevin, bored, searching for a plot line and like this novel – it begins so tantalizingly as a way to navigate your way through the hitherto secret confessions of motherhood but offers nothing but contradictions, winding uphill roads and perilous descents only to arrive at nowhere in particular. Unfortunately I just couldn’t enjoy the ride.