Serpent’s Tail (2003), 468 pages
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2005
Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel tells the story of a psychopathic teenage mass murderer Kevin through the letters of his mother Eva. Eva’s letters to her husband Franklin recount Kevin’s growth from a malevolent child to a coldblooded killer and into his in prison. Eva struggles with the conflict between her maternal instinct and her knowledge that Kevin is not a normal child. Kevin’s successfully manipulates his father Franklin so that he can see no fault in his son’s behaviour.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is an accurate insight into the dangerous nature of psychopathic individuals, even those who do not progress to the extreme violence employed by Kevin. The letters written by Eva highlight the uncertainty felt by a mother who comes to realise that her son is a threat to society.
Whilst We Need to Talk About Kevin is a convincing portrayal of one family’s struggle against the violence that lurks inside it the novel isn’t quite as successful at dealing with the wider issues in American society that it attempts to cover. Eva is a Democrat and Franklin is a Republican and both of their political views are challenged by the practical difficulties they face in raising Kevin. Shriver attempts to probe for the reasons behind mass murders perpetrated by school students but doesn’t reach any real conclusion about their cause. She only hints that both Democrats and Republicans have, in some way, both failed in creating a society where American children can go to school safely.