This book is just devastating ... and devastatingly good. I've just finished it, and had a little cry on the balcony in the bright sunshine, thinking about my mom and motherhood and blame, self-recrimination, guilt and remorse and parental love and the painfully ambiguous, sometimes tortured complexity of it all.
And that is underselling it.
Suffice for now to say, you might not enjoy this if:
- You believe that a lack of maternal instinct or feeling is a character flaw or a moral failing;
- You come out soundly on the nurture either side of the nature/nurture continuum;
- You believe parents always, at some point and for most things, need to be held accountable for their child's behaviour;
- You seek the anxiety-quelling solace that pat sociological and psychological theories and labels offer: post-partum depression, sociopathy, unconditional positive regard.
This novel should, I hope, blast through any of those preconceptions--some of which, at some times in my life, I've believed.
Shriver turns all of this on its ear, and twists some literary and plot conventions to her own purposes at the same time. She is steadfast and clear-eyed in her determination to dismantle the 'blame the parents' catechism that passes for analysis and explanation of that which is inexplicable, in this case a school shooting and the lives, events and choices that led to it.
To do so, she creates characters who are unlikeable, sometimes deeply so, but oh-so-human: even Kevin. Unless you're a sociopath, which I think is one of her points, you cannot help but empathize with each of them at times; hate them at others; give them the benefit of the doubt frequently, too frequently perhaps, which is another.
Whether or not you are a parent (I am not), you cannot help but feel that you've been given a rare insight into someone's worst nightmare, because you have -- whatever angle you are viewing from -- and there is nowhere to go to depersonalize or escape it.
Shriver sidles up to her characters, cycling through the subjectivity of a first-person narrative from a defense into a self-flagellation into an exposition. Though the jig was up half-way through for me in terms of one of the last plot twists, it didn't matter and didn't detract from the facility with which the author employed the epistolary style, and the emotional punch it levelled.
Eva's retrospective self-analysis, through a lens tinged by tragedy, guilt and shame, gives us a perspective into events and motivations both in hindsight and as they unfold, retaining the immediacy and intensity that only a first-person account can provide. It happened but it is never past, because the telling makes it happen in perpetuity, which is exactly how trauma works.
Because of who she is, Eva is able to present with alarming clarity that which is unambiguously evil, and therefore that which remains ambiguous is doubly so. Shriver does not let anyone off the hook--these characters are so complex in their humanity, and yet they are also Boomer-upper middle-class shallow, which is never reduced to a cliche. She also never fails to produce horror--infused with the dark comedy to which only its victims or observers from a comfortable distance are entitled (and we are neither)--from sometimes mundane domestic details (an "eviscerated" 3-yr old's birthday cake. An exotic pet, a clogged drain and a shaver with an inordinately large amount of hair in it. A glass-eyed antique doll given as a Christmas present.) Kevin's rampage, like Shriver's prose, is revealed in poetic detail.
I was sometimes shaking with anger while reading. I would have smashed the water pistol a half-dozen pages earlier, yet when Eva finally did, her remorse at her ink-stained yellow shoe left the justification for the act coloured with her materialistic shallowness and hypocrisy. This scene, one of so many, revealed character in a way that only an absolutely top-notch novelist can ever produce.
Have I said? The writing is brilliant. God is in the details in this novel, in which every page needs, probably, to be read a dozen times (not that I could bear it).
And there is substance to go with that style: Eva's agoraphobic mother's offer to fly to her after Thursday
reduced me to tears, as one mother's unconditional love and courage reflected on the other's--in a mirror, or in relief? Hard to say.
There are no easy answers here, for Eva or for us. There is no clear truth or explanation why, a matter on which all sides, including the reader, must--against our human desire for explanation, order-out-of-chaos, resolution--reluctantly come to agree.
This review, now, is an incoherent ramble--unlike Eva's self-confessional, bibliotherapeutic letters and the novel itself. It is still a fresh wound for me, and I will need to come back later when I've stanched the flow a bit.