We Need to Talk About Kevin
Why: It was on a display shelf in the library with a recommendation next to it. I’d always meant to read it so I picked it up and started reading instead of doing the work I was supposed to be doing.
Oh god. I don’t want to write about this book because it is so much and too much. I appreciate that that sentence is tautological and nothing-y but perhaps it makes sense if you have read the book?
Kevin is a book so well-known in popular culture that on picking this book up, you know you’re going to read about a high-school massacre, so perhaps you ought to know how unbearable it will be. I didn’t anticipate it. Not in any properly comprehending way – not the extent of the horror. Now, I don’t want to be misleading, this book is not a horror or true crime genre staple by any means. It is deeply and darkly psychological, playing you against yourself, as you sympathise with, question, and perhaps revile the narrator – Kevin’s mother, Eva.
Throughout I felt burdened by the weight of Eva’s testimony, which you read as letters sent to her husband, after the massacre. Much like a Donna Tartt novel, the depth and acuity of the writing means the story pervades your day-to-day life; you really live with it while you’re reading the novel and its impact hovers over you like grief, long after finishing the last page. For me, the novel, and Eva, felt like they were dragging me down with them and unearthed fears of motherhood I had never fully appreciated. I haven’t read many critic’s takes, but I feel that now, in light of our greater attention to gender bias, we could have a much more fruitful discussion about the social expectations surrounding Eva and motherhood. I truly feel those expectations, and the role of her husband, are at the core of the novel, rather than a simplistic analysis of nature or nurture. The question ‘was it the mother’s fault or was the baby just bad?’ is far too binary for the complexity of the narrative and depth of the characters, and reaching a definitive ‘conclusion’ about whose fault it is probably misses the point. It is a novel which will stay with me and continue to shape my thinking
Under the Greenwood Tree
Why: It’s the Hammerpuzzle Christmas play at the Studio theatre and I felt like I ought to read the book before seeing it – plus the director assured me that it was “very short”.
I was fully convinced that Thomas Hardy’s MO was misery. Having read his poetry about his late wife, and knowing how he had treated her, I’d never felt a particular sense of affection for Hardy, though after reading Under the Greenwood Tree, I’ll openly admit I’d wrongly pigeon-holed the bloke. Sure, his major hit, Far From the Madding Crowd, is fairly relentlessly miserable but there are lovely rural bits and, at the end of the day, the story is about dogged, faithful love. Under the Greenwood Tree is all of those good bits without the misery! Would you believe it, T. Hardy even cracks a few jokes?! I wouldn’t say laugh a minute, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, but he certainly painted sweetly funny situations and characters. The two protagonists were more charming than frustrating for the most part – and even the frustrating things about them (mostly the arguments about wearing a bonnet or a hat) were quaint.
But the stand-out element for me, rather than the gentle love story, was the ‘quire’ (or choir). I can’t think of much that is more bucolic than a troupe of townsmen roaming about their village with various stringed instruments (but certainly not any evil ‘clarnets’) serenading or irritating their neighbours with carols and hymns. While reading this, I spent much time desperately wishing I hadn’t given up the violin, even though I was truly AWFUL at it, so I could now join one such troupe, that definitely doesn’t exist anymore, and harass the good people of Cheltenham.
What Would Boudicca Do?
Why: I read Shakespeare for Grown Ups earlier in the year in order to write Shakespeare 101. This is by the same duo (plus I wanted to know more about Boudicca).
This takes a day or so to read, is delightful, and should be given to all women upon their 18th birthday. The concept is simple: the lives of 50 women from history can teach us about key elements of life today, so you have the history side and the, I guess, ‘empowerment’ side. I’m not crazy about the ‘empowerment’ side, partly because the whole concept feels fairly commoditised at the minute, and partly because Boudicca’s merciless and brutal rebellion against the Romans in response to them taking her lands, flogging her, and raping her daughters, seems a little bit trivialised when the message we can take from it is ‘sticking up for yourself’.That being said, the writing is sharp, modern, and often hilarious, so the ocassionally trite take-home messages can be forgiven (just like Cleopatra you should ‘keep your family in line’ – except they’re not advising you to marry your brother and then poison him, but maybe just to tell them to keep out of your room and stop reading your diary).
The history part, on the other hand, is excellent. I haven’t come across any other book that is a history of incredible women throughout history, let alone one which condenses it so efficiently and riotously. Even better, the women are brilliantly diverse – in terms of era, notoriety, geography, ethnicity, and gender binary – the balance is well-drawn between women you will have heard of, and women you ought to have heard of. Reading this gave me a much better sense of the wealth and extent of female achievement, that I don’t think was ever focused on or appreciated in history lessons at school, or trips to the museum. In textbooks, the lives of women plural in whatever period are touched on in a paragraph, but seldom is a single women lauded for her own achievements or her whole life appreciated and explained. What Would Boudicca Do? is invaluable because of its witty potted-biographies, explaining where each woman came from (her social background and historical context) and how they achieved their greatness. For me, it was this part that made these women seem relatable and not the more marketable, self-help-y stuff about helping you to be a better woman. The history and writing is absolutely worth it & it should be taught in schools.