For a while, I was writing. Not on this blog. WRITING writing, y’know. The clack of the keys, the hunching in a cold garret, the drafts screwed up and thrown over the shoulder. Sort of. There I was in the wintery months, hot water bottle up my jumper, letters spinning from my fingertips. It was hard, frustrating, delightful. It felt – right.
But you’ll note the past tense. I’ve not written for weeks. I have been in the throes of a building project: homeless, floorless, wall-less, my husband and I camping in the flat of a kindly friend. I lost my writing diary; I lost my phone charger, I’ve mostly lost my mind. Virginia was right; without a room of one’s own, not much is achievable.
But the point is, this spell of writing has given me the fresh-cut appreciation of the sheer skill and genius behind a compelling story. It’s an excellent practice to try something out that you generally only consume when prone on the sofa, dribbling, because it makes you truly appreciate the craft. It’s just like eating amazing restaurant food, forkful by marvelling forkful, when at home you can only stretch to a pale, sorry-looking bit of chicken drooping on top of some greying beans. The critical scales fall, leaving you with new, awestruck eyes.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is not a title which draws you into a book – at least not me, with my unreasonable antipathy (more reasonable now I’ve read the book) for the name ‘Kevin’. I had resisted the novel, the film adaptation, and generally exhibiting any interest in Lionel Shriver at all for quite five years. But then I felt low; I had no walls; I reached for something accessible and undemanding. Ha! This is a book about the mother of a high-school mass murderer teenager, and her experience of motherhood to this boy who is different from the start.
It really is expertly handled. The pace, the tensions, the unfolding doubts in your mind as to the role of reluctant mother in her son’s troublesome development. There’s even a final, heart-wrenching twist which numbers among the most unexpected and striking I have read. The timing is impeccable – the way in which the story is unfurled, the order in which things are revealed and the masterful handling of pace would be hard to beat. With a potentially melodramatic subject, the understatement and sometimes the normalisation of that book’s horrors exhibit commendable, eerie restraint.
WNTTAK also excels in having two fundamentally dislikeable lead characters but not losing the reader’s emotional connection with the story. The protagonist’s selfishness is so self-rationalised that we take the journey with her, rooting for this selfish, often cruel woman.
I think the title and cover do the book a disservice – it comes across as sinister but simple – a pot-boiler. The subtlety of Shriver’s writing takes this book into a different league. It is clinical, insightful, perfectly measured and page turning – a chilling work of art. For me, this is what a horror story should be.