For a book that takes on the last great myth of the modern world: motherhood.
The Independent quotes Lionel Shriver on the writing of We Need To Talk About Kevin:
“When I started this book, I was in my early forties and in the reproductive last gasp. I still hadn’t had any children and had always been queasy about the idea,” she said. The consequence of writing the book was “I scared myself witless and I still don’t have any children”.
Robert Birnbaum ran a great interview with her in 2003, where she says:
“I certainly knew that if I was going to address a subject of a woman who essentially doesn’t like her own son—I don’t think that’s a minefield, I think that it’s just a mine— it was an idea that was intrinsically going to make my main character seem unattractive to most readers. I think that bond between mother and son is especially inviolable, I would say even beyond Western culture. That’s commonly one of the deepest and least conditional of relationships. And here I was placing conditions on it. A mother who wouldn’t have picked this person to be her son and was honest enough to admit that to herself. The main way I got around the unpleasantness of violating that taboo is by channeling my energies through that honesty into her forthrightness; her willingness to look her own unpleasantness in the face.”
But it’s odd how books are remembered in the public mind, especially by people who haven’t read them. A day before Shriver won, I mentioned We Need To Talk About Kevin to a friend who grimaced and said, “Oh, the anti-motherhood book?”
And I had to explain that, from the point of view of the cheerfully childfree, it’s not that We Need To Talk About Kevin is anti-motherhood that I find refreshing; it’s that it doesn’t genuflect at the altar of parenthood. Shriver’s novel goes beyond just the mother-child relationship–the mother here looking back at her child after he’s shot several of his classmates at school–to examine questions of violence and alienation. What makes her approach different is that she feels free to give voice to the side of motherhood and parenthood that you’re not supposed to discuss, even if–perhaps especially if–you love your kids. Shriver says:
“I sense that with my friends that have children and clearly are glad to have children on balance that when you speak to them about the experience of parenthood, they are often doing a kind of a sales pitch. Right? Which clearly involves selling the idea to themselves, not to me. There is a big downside. There are sacrifices. After all parenthood has that reputation and thy are constantly running this patter through their heads convincing themselves that the sacrifices were worth it. That they loved their children, “Oh, the world is made anew.” It often sounds a little hollow. I think that parents feel to give voice to what they don’t like about parenthood is to betray their children and that is why I found a number of woman, in particular, have been grateful for this book. It’s someone giving voice to his or her reservations. And Eva speaks for them about the things that they have never felt they had permission to say.”