Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What I'm Reading: In Praise of Darkness

I just finished an incredibly dark, challenging, fascinating novel: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s about a mother whose son has committed a Columbine-style mass murder. The book explores all the nooks and crannies of how such a thing could happen, and none of the characters is left unscathed.

When I say that, what I mean is that Shriver does what I’m always trying to do in my own work and encouraging students to do, which is to PUSH HARDER. So, it’s not enough to have as the centerpiece of the book this horrid mass murder—the point-of-view character, the mother, is quite unsympathetic (though explored in great depth; and with her immense and painful self-awareness, I did sympathize in spite of what she was revealing about herself). The son is also unsympathetic…a baby who seemed uninterested in life and love who grows into a too-smart, nasty boy, a boy “onto” the world at a young age. And yet there are a few moments of vulnerability, and we have to remind ourselves that we’re always seeing him solely through the mother’s eyes. As for the husband/father…you guessed it: unsympathetic! But again, I found myself caught: is it so awful to want to try so hard to have the nice little family you’ve dreamed of?

So I very much admired how this book uses the first person, unreliable narrator and how it tells us from the beginning what the horrific outcome will be. There’s never suspense about the school murder itself—but plenty of tension as we try to understand how it all came to pass. And how does one write an ending to this set-up? Lionel Shriver totally pulls it off!

The book won the prestigious Orange Prize in the U.K., accumulated a barrel of favorable reviews, was selected by the “Good Morning America” book club, and the rights were sold in 11 other countries. So you writers needing a boost of perseverance will be interested to know that in an essay following the text in the paperback edition, Shriver writes that when she finished this novel, her agent claimed it couldn’t sell, sending an email saying, “I just don’t think anyone is going to want to publish a book about a kid doing such maxed-out, over-the-top, evil things, especially when it’s written from such an unsympathetic point of view.” Shriver spent 8 months sending the book around to various agents. Finally, she sent it directly to an editor: “She read it over the weekend and made an offer on Monday.”

Great book, great backstory. Read—study—learn. And if you’d like to know more, here's an interesting interview with Lionel Shriver.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.