A couple of weeks ago I ventured into the local high street to trawl charity shops for a fancy dress party I had been invited to. The particular high street I went to has about eight or so charity shops dotted along it, all of which have second-hand book sections in them. So, perhaps predictably enough, a couple of hours later I returned home with little in the way of fancy dress attire, but clutching five novels to add to my bookshelves. All five were in perfect condition (clearly not one of them had ever been read) and each cost me the princely sum of either £1 or £1.50.

I love scouring second-hand book shops and charity shops for books. I love the unpredictable nature of the stock; it makes browsing that much more exciting. When you walk in, you know most items will be absolute junk, but there is always the possibility of finding some gold amongst the dross.

Anyway, I mention all of this here as We Need to Talk About Kevin (winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for fiction) was one of the books I picked up.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

After being gripped from the start, I finally finished it a couple of nights ago, but am now struggling to know what (or how) to write about it. If I explain that the novel revolves around a fictional high school massacre and its aftermath, you’ll perhaps understand why I am hesitant to just dive into whether it was a good read, etc.

The whole narrative of the novel is made up entirely of letters written by the teenage killer’s mother, Eva Khatchadourian, to her husband, as she tries to make sense of what went wrong with their son, Kevin, and why he did what he did. The book provides a powerful setting for the nature/nurture debate, as Kevin is certainly not a stereotypical child killer raised in the slums, without love or opportunity in his life. On the contrary, Kevin is born to a seemingly happy, stable, successful couple and grows up with access to all of the benefits of modern, wealthy American suburban life. So what are we to make of all this? The difficult question Shriver poses us is how could a seemingly well-brought-up child, without any obvious traumas in his life turn into a teenage killer? (See Philip Roth’s American Pastoral for a similar scenario.)

Of course, as we only get to read what Eva writes in her letters, we only have her perspective of events. Now it appears that she is being as honest with herself as she can be, however after the massacre (referred to simply as that Thursday by Eva) society at large and even Eva herself start to question her parenting abilities. As we read on, we are tempted to ask whether perhaps such terrible cases do necessarily point to a fatal flaw in a child’s parents (or at least in the way they raise their children). However, there is enough ambiguity in the tale for multiple readings.

All of which makes for a very gripping, if uneasy, read. As we observe Eva desperately trying to process everything that has happened to her and her family over the years, we get more and more caught up in the story. I have to say that it is a very cleverly constructed narrative, unfolding like a thriller, with some powerful twists towards the end. Not a light-hearted read by any means, but utterly compulsive once started.