Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin deploys an unreliable narrator. It’s the story of Eva, the mother of a fifteen-year-old boy who kills seven of his classmates, a cafeteria worker and a teacher.
In a series of letters to her estranged husband, Eva reflects back on her choice to become a mother, her pregnancy and raising their son Kevin. The main questions this novel tackles are those of nature versus nurture and who can/should be held responsible for a school shooting.
Go to Goodreads for my book review on this novel: www.goodreads.com/review/show/183029663.
As a writer, what interests me in this novel is the use of the unreliable narrator. It is well executed that I would recommend this book to all writers simply on this merit alone. This perspective is the driving force of the novel.
Orson Scott Card writes in his book Characters & Viewpoint, “The use of an unreliable narrator can add a delicious element of uncertainty to a story.”
I’ve seen the perspective of the unreliable narrator done badly often enough that I’ve never dared attempt it myself. The unreliable narrator bothers me in most stories because either it is made clear too late into the story that the narrator is unreliable (which makes me feel cheated), or the narrator is arrogant to the point where I can’t connect to him/her and therefore, stop reading.
It’s no wonder Card is of the opinion that the unreliable narrator is “a dangerous thing to attempt, and only occasionally worth doing.”
Shriver avoids both of these pitfalls and creates an intriguing character whose story is so unique, we can’t help but to keep on reading. As Kate Mosse writes in the introduction to the novel, “The tone is chatty, intimate, (…) Eva is independent, interesting, someone we might like to know. (…) Little by little we start to realise that Eva – our friend, our co-conspirator – is not necessarily to be trusted.”
Why it works
I think one of the main reasons this perspective works well is the context of the story. Eva writes letters which she dates and the reader is constantly reminded that Eva is reflecting back on past events after knowing what her son is to become. This means that the reader knows her memories can be tainted. Slowly, as Eva admits that she was mistaken about something she assumed Kevin did, the reader learns not to completely trust the version of the story offered by the narrator and tries to re-create a more objective one.
Another reason why the perspective works well is the candid manner in which Eva tells her story. She gives us all the details, even the ones which make her look bad. It is unlikely someone would untruthfully make themselves look so bad, and that makes her seem honest.
Making her seem, on the one hand, candid to the point of honesty and, on the other hand, reminding the reader that her memories are tainted, creates great friction. The reader is constantly battling the question: ‘How much do I believe?’