‘In the end, I decided to be a professional - to be, if you will, a man. I planned for victory.’
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This was Lionel Shriver’s response to winning the Orange Prize for women’s fiction in 2005. Shriver clearly has no truck with the fuzzy girlyness of the modern sisterhood. At the age of 15, she changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel. Upon winning the coveted Orange award, she wrote a long piece in the Guardian comparing the assumptions she feels are made about prize-winning women writers with those that are made about men: ‘[I felt that] underpinning all this sweetness and hospitality was a profound discomfort with head-to-head competition…. [S]ix men up for the same prize shut together in a room do not exchange email addresses, or invite each other to visit as house guests.’
And of course, Shriver’s novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is a broadside against society’s most cherished assumption about motherhood: that a mother will always love her child. Shriver’s Kevin is a 15-year-old sociopath who slaughters several classmates in a Columbine-style school massacre. Through a series of letters to her estranged husband, Kevin’s mother, Eva Khatchadourian, laboriously details the manifest ways in which, despite her best efforts, she has always failed to love her son. In this story, Kevin’s mass murdering is less shocking than his mother’s abject dislike and distrust of her son from pregnancy and infancy onwards.
We Need To Talk About Kevin isn’t an easy read, but it’s a good one. The subject matter is courageous, the style is crisp, the insights are perceptive. The fact that Shriver, a childless woman, has chosen to dwell on the intimate detail of motherhood is a refreshing use of imagination at a time when far too many female novelists are churning out personalised mummy lit, on the grounds that this is what women with stretch marks do. The fact that Shriver writes (in my view) like a man is a jolting antidote to the cloying sentimentality that underlies much of this stuff. That it won a prize should not be controversial.
“There is nothing taboo about whingeing in print about the everyday grind of maternity”
What should be shocking, however, is the kind of accolades that have been heaped upon it in these feminised times, by those very people who normally exude the very Mumsiness that Shriver has pitched herself, and her novel, against. Jenni Murray, chair of the Orange Prize judges, publicly-recognised mother of sons, and host of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, said the book would ‘resonate with everyone who has had a child or thought about having one’. Snuggly columnist Cristina Odone railed that ‘parenthood had become sealed in a smug and Disneyesque sentimentality’, and welcomed Shriver’s attempt to tackle one of the great taboos of our time: ‘Motherhood is synonymous with automatic as well as unconditional love and to challenge this nostrum is to outrage just about everyone.’
But if Shriver is challenging a taboo through showing motherhood to be not all sweetness and light, she is treading a well-worn path. Over recent years, a number of ‘taboo-breaking’ non-fiction books have exposed the dark side of motherhood - Kate Figes’ Life After Birth, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, to name but a few. Candid confessionals from writers-turned-mommies about the physical, financial and emotional strain of having a baby, the difficulties in reconciling one’s identity as a successful, independent woman with that of a sleep-deprived, bottom-wiping, taken-for-granted mother, and the spasms of guilt and resentment that mothers can feel towards their babies, have become Tupperware parties for literary moms. There is nothing taboo about whingeing in print about the everyday grind of maternity.
But there is nothing everyday about a teenage boy who slaughters his classmates, or a mother so cold that she says of her newborn infant, ‘To me he was never “the baby”. He was a singular, unusually cunning individual who had arrived to stay with us and who just happened to be very small.’ The strength of Shriver’s novel, one would imagine, is in illustrating the exception, rather than the rule. Yet many of those who have offered up accolades want to stress just how much it illuminates the hidden side of motherhood for all of us. This is all rather disturbing. Yes, motherhood is a challenge; yes, some women have a tough time of it. But are we really all one baby-step away from hating our children and turning them into serial killers?
We Need To Talk About Kevin is a book that acknowledges what many women worry about but never express - the fear of becoming a mother and the terror of what kind of child one might bring into the world’, continues Jenni Murray - who also writes, on the book’s jacket, that this book is ‘a comfort and a revelation’ which has ‘universal appeal’. ‘A book about the dangerous distance that exists between what we feel and what we are prepared to admit when it comes to family life…it is a book about what we need to talk about but can’t’, says Rachel Cusk on the novel’s front cover. Cristina Odone goes on about the problem of postnatal depression, caused by mothers’ feelings of hostility towards their newborn: ‘Family therapists contend that the baby blues, for instance, are simply a new mother’s realisation that she cannot live up to society’s unrealistic expectations of parenthood’, she says.
The notion that mothers everywhere can identify with a woman who hates her own child, and that they might derive some comfort from doing so, is frankly bizarre. It does not come from some enlightened new understanding about the lived experience of individual mothers, but from a broader fear about parenting, and what it means to be a mother. It is worth noting that We Need To Talk About Kevin struggled to find a publisher and then took off in the USA as a cult word-of-mouth read, rather than as a mainstream bestselling hit. Its thesis is the kind beloved of reading groups and columnists, not identified with by mothers chatting at the school gates. One revealing interview by Jasper Gerard in The Times (London) showed Shriver to be personally rather weird: he talks about her ‘coldness, or at least coolness’, her childish narcissism, her massive ego and claims that ‘she is as difficult and complex in her way as Kevin’ - all of which are fine attributes for a novelist, but rather less so for somebody hailed as the hidden voice of the everyday mom.
“Shriver’s rather warped personal views on children have met with a strangely sympathetic reaction”
The idea that people just get on with the children business and muddle through as best they can is now seen as outmoded and simplistic. Instead, we are supposed to dwell on the dark, emotional side of motherhood and identity loss, and recognise the abuser that apparently lurks within ourselves so as to contain it. Well, you know, I’m sure I have my faults as a mother. But I was more worried about my baby daughter falling over as she learned to walk than the possibility that she might murder her classmates, and I tend not to hurl her across the room when she cries.
Even Shriver’s rather warped personal views on children have met with a strangely sympathetic reaction. She was contemplating having children before writing We Need To Talk About Kevin - writing the novel, she says, put her off. But this is fiction we’re talking about - an apocalyptic vision springing from Shriver’s twisted imagination, which is very different to the more mundane and, yes, cuddly reality of actually having a baby.
Shriver insists on talking about children as strangers that you meet: ‘[I]t’s like any other relationship - it’s hard to communicate and understand each other. You are thrown together with this person you wouldn’t necessarily choose to spend time with at a party.’ But you don’t bump into your kids at a party - you give birth to them, shape them, love them, and if occasionally you don’t like them, so what? It is not ‘any other relationship’, that you can or want to terminate at will - it is a deep and highly intimate bond that simply isn’t susceptible to the etiquette of coffee-bar friendships or office politics.
The intensity and intimacy of the mother-child relationship is what, for the vast majority of families, make it so precious. It is not some danger zone to be avoided, or taboo to be broken. Nor is it something so desperately complicated that it requires intellectual deconstruction - you have your kids, you love them, you raise them to be adults. It might be tough, but it’s not so hard. Most children are not Kevin, and we don’t need to talk about them as if they were.
Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)
We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, is published by Serpent’s Tail. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).
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We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver