We Need to Talk About Kevin

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We Need to Talk About Kevin
First edition
Author Lionel Shriver
Country United States
Language English
Genre Drama
Publisher Counterpoint Press
Publication date
April 14, 2003
Media type Print (Paperback and Hardback)
Pages 416
ISBN 1-58243-267-8
OCLC 50948454
813/.54 21
LC Class PS3569.H742 W4 2003

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, published by Serpent's Tail, about a fictional school massacre. It is written from the first person perspective of the killer's mother, Eva Khatchadourian, and documents her attempt to come to terms with her son Kevin and the murders he committed, as told in a series of letters from Eva to her husband. The novel, Shriver's seventh, won the 2005 Orange Prize, a U.K.-based prize for female authors of any country writing in English. In 2011 the novel was adapted into a film.


Eva's narration takes the form of letters written after the massacre to her presumably estranged husband, Franklin Plaskett. In these letters she details her relationship with her husband well before and leading up to their son's conception, followed by the events of Kevin's life up to the school massacre, and her thoughts concerning their relationship. She also admits to a number of events that she tried to keep secret, such as when she lashed out and broke Kevin's arm in a sudden fit of rage. The novel also shows Eva visiting Kevin in prison. These scenes portray their cold, adversarial relationship.

Kevin's behavior throughout the book closely resembles that of a psychopath, although reference to this condition is sparse and left mostly up to the reader's imagination. He displays little to no affection or moral responsibility towards his family or community; indeed, Kevin seems to regard everyone with contempt and hatred. He reserves special loathing for his mother, whom he has antagonized for as long as he can remember. He engages in many acts of petty sabotage from an early age, from seemingly innocent actions like spraying ink with a squirt gun on a room his mother has painstakingly wallpapered in rare maps, to possibly encouraging a girl to gouge her eczema-affected skin. The one activity he takes any pleasure in is archery, having read Robin Hood as a child.

As Kevin's behavior worsens, Franklin becomes more defensive of him, convinced that his son is a healthy, normal boy and that there is a reasonable explanation for everything he does. Kevin plays the part of a loving, respectful son whenever Franklin is around, an act that Eva sees through. This creates a rift between Eva and Franklin that never heals; shortly before the massacre, Franklin asks for a divorce.

Kevin's sister Celia is conceived largely because of Eva's need to bond with another member of her family. When Celia is six years old, she is involved in a household accident in which drain cleaner causes her to lose an eye. This is closely linked to an earlier incident involving the disappearance of Celia's pet rodents, after which Eva uses a caustic drain cleaner to clear a blockage in a sink. Two explanations are possible: that Eva left the cleaner sitting within Celia's reach, or that Kevin somehow attacked Celia with it, destroying her eye and scarring her face. Though never proven, Eva strongly believes that Kevin, who was babysitting at the time, poured the Liquid Plumr onto his sister's face, telling her he was cleaning her eye after she got something in it.

When relating the story of the massacre, Eva finally reveals that Franklin and Celia are in fact dead—Kevin killed them both with his bow before traveling to his school to attack nine classmates, a cafeteria worker and a teacher. Eva speculates that he did this because he overheard her and Franklin discussing a divorce; he believed Franklin would get custody of him, thus denying him final victory over his mother.

The novel ends on the second anniversary of the massacre, three days before Kevin will turn eighteen and be transferred to Sing Sing. Subdued and frightened, he makes a peace offering of sorts to Eva by giving her Celia's prosthetic eye to bury, and telling her that he's sorry. Eva asks Kevin for the first time why he committed the murders, and Kevin replies that he is no longer sure. They embrace, and Eva concludes that, despite what he did, she still loves her son.

Major themes[edit]

Shriver focuses on the relative importance of innate characteristics and personal experiences in determining character and behaviour, and the book is particularly concerned with the possibility that Eva's ambivalence toward maternity may have influenced Kevin's development. Shriver also identifies American optimism and "high-hopes-crushed" as one of the novel's primary themes, as represented by Franklin, the narrator’s husband, who serves as "the novel’s self-willed optimist about the possibility of a happy family."[1]

Rationalization for Kevin's behavior is one of the central themes of the story: When asked the simple question "Why?" after the massacre, he responds that he is giving the public the excitement and scandal that it secretly craves. Only in rare instances does another side of Kevin emerge: in childhood, when he becomes very ill, and later, just before he is transferred to an adult prison and is evidently nervous. Near the end of the book, when asked for the first time by his mother "Why?," he responds, "I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure."


Film adaptation[edit]

In 2005 BBC Films acquired the rights to adapt the book as a film.[2] Director Lynne Ramsay signed on to direct.[3] It was announced in March 2009 that Tilda Swinton had signed on to star in the film as Eva.[4] Filming began on location in Stamford, Connecticut on April 19, 2010.[5] We Need To Talk About Kevin was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9 and 11, 2011. John C. Reilly plays Franklin and Ezra Miller plays Kevin. The film premiered In Competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival,[6] where it was met with praise from film critics.[7]

Radio adaptation[edit]

From January 7, 2008, the story was serialized on BBC Radio 4 in 10 15-minute episodes and was broadcast daily as the Woman's Hour drama. It starred Madeleine Potter as Eva Katchadourian. Ethan Brooke and Nathan Nolan played Kevin at various ages, while Richard Laing played Franklin Plaskett.[8] It is occasionally repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra.[9]


  1. ^ Shute, Jenefer. "Lionel Shriver". BOMB Magazine. Fall 2005. Retrieved July 26, 2011.
  2. ^ Miller, Phil (September 14, 2007). "Why does this author need to talk about filming Kevin?". The Herald. 
  3. ^ Arendt, Paul (June 6, 2006). "Ramsay needs to shoot a film about Kevin". The Guardian. Guardian News & Media. p. 21 (G2 supplement). 
  4. ^ Editors (March 18, 2009). "Producer Says Tilda Swinton to Star in "Kevin," Adaptation of Lionel Shriver Novel". New York Times Blogs. Retrieved March 21, 2009. 
  5. ^ Dawtrey, Adam (April 22, 2010). "The welcome return of Lynne Ramsay". guardian.co.uk (Guardian News & Media). Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes – From 16 to 27 may 2012". Festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2011-12-23. 
  7. ^ "BBC News – Cannes gets talking about British Kevin drama". BBC. May 12, 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-23. 
  8. ^ "Cast list and broadcast dates". Radiolistings.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-09-07. 
  9. ^ "BBC 7's website for the radio adaptation". BBC. Retrieved 2012-09-07. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Andrea Levy – Small Island
Orange Prize for Fiction
Succeeded by
Zadie Smith – On Beauty