We Need to Talk About Kevin: It’s really about maternity

I’ve started marathon training again, and with the increase in kilometres comes an increase in books I listen to instead of reading. M. suggested I might like “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (well, maybe not “like” so much as be-interested-in) and she was right. It’s hard to separate out liking the book from liking the audio recording – a lot of background and supplemental sounds to keep this running reader engaged – but whatever the cause I did enjoy this story.

I’m not sure the book is about Kevin so much as it is about the narrator and wife Eva, and not so much about what makes for a sociopath as it is about what makes a mother (the plot, in brief, is that Kevin massacres 12 people at his high school, goes to prison, Eva and Franklin’s marriage falls apart). My friend C. recently asked what it might mean to be a woman and not be a mother in terms of the values we hold. She asked because she’d been thinking about Idle No More and the explanation many of the women gave for their participation as a result of their concern for their children and grandchildren. What shapes our values – or justifies them – if we don’t have children through whom to explain our actions? This narrative asks a slightly different – but related question – in that it wonders how women become complicit or implicated in the successes of failures of their children. It wonders whether mothers are nothing more than extensions of their children, or hold ultimate responsibility for their actions – as if they are always-already accountable for what the child does or doesn’t do (and in a manner different from that of the father). And what of those mothers who do not “do” maternity well? Those who dislike their children, who experience post-partum depression, who make egregious and conscious errors in parenting? These sorts of obvious “failures” of maternity are contrasted with the unspoken but assumed failures that attach to childless mothers, barren women, women who abort or miscarry, women who do not “take” to mothering with the seamless ease supposedly innate and natural. And in all of these questions the reader is left to ask what happens to Eva as a person – someone who wanted particular things from and for her life in and beyond maternity – if all she is becomes subsumed by her actions and failings as a mother. And this is, I think, where C.’s question comes back into it – if we allow femininity or womanhood to be unilaterally attached or drawn to our propensity or success as a mother, what do we leave women for themselves? If our values are tied to preservation and protection of our children, our identities wedded to our success as mothers, our purpose and meaning derived from our children… well it seems an awfully oppressive kind of maternity. A sexist one that says that women must identify themselves first and always as mothers (while men might have identities far beyond or in addition to paternity) and that any inclination toward a separate life is selfish or unnatural. And one that casts doubt or suspicion on those women for whom maternity is not possible, desirable or suitable. 

The book is supposedly about what makes for a sociopathic killer, but it is, I think, far more interesting in the ways it grapples with what makes for a woman, a wife and a mother. 

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner

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