We Need to Talk About Kevin
February 22, 2013 5:42 AM   Subscribe

When you read Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin what did you know, and when? And also, can you recommend books with similar techniques? Spoilers inside. (Presumed Innocent and Defending Jacob are also mentioned in a way that may be spoiler-y to some.)

I recently read We Need to Talk about Kevin, after having seen the movie. Knowing the full outcome of Kevin's rampage, I wondered throughout the book just how obvious it would be to the unprepared reader. Particularly, that the husband Eva is writing her letters to is not estranged, but dead. If you read the book, at what point did you know this, and why?

I also started thinking about other books where the narrator's voice dominates, and where it's clear from the beginning that s/he is deeply embroiled in the action, and knows a lot more than we do but somehow manages to keep all or part of it from the reader. (This is of course assuming that you don't figure out WNTTAK right at the beginning.) Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent and William Landay's Defending Jacob come to mind. Can anyone recommend other examples of this? Thanks!

(I realize it's hard to name books that do this without creating spoilers. In the three I've mentioned, it's clear from the first few pages that the narrator knows everything and is going to tell us in her/his own good time, so I am hoping describing them that way is not in itself a spoiler.)
posted by BibiRose to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I read the [audio] book a couple years before the movie. I can't say for certain but I don't believe I knew the husband was dead until basically they came right out and said it. (I remember being mildly put off by the format of the "Dear Franklin" letters and not understanding why she kept using that format, and then it all kind of came together for me, obviously.) I guess I was so enthralled/mesmerized by the rest of the story that I didn't even consider that there was something else coming.

I can't think of any other books I've read that were like that one for many reasons - I couldn't stop thinking about it for about a month after I read it. I look forward to seeing what others say.
posted by getawaysticks at 5:53 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read that book without seeing the movie first. I am the kind of person who can see the twists coming, and I was totally and completely unprepared for the ending of We Need to Talk About Kevin.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 5:56 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read the book years ago, when it first came out, and I remember thinking something was up maybe...a couple of chapters in?

I think I guessed because the letters she writes are just so intricately detailed that it's obvious it's a plot device. Like, nobody would write that level of detail in the way she wrote it, in a letter to an actual living person.

I remember being much more shocked that the poor daughter (Celia) got killed as well.
posted by Salamander at 5:56 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's been years since I read it, but I remember the rampage being a MAJOR punch in the gut. I didn't really put much together until near the end.

Gone Girl might be a good one to add to your list, though the narration alternates between two characters.
posted by jaguar at 5:56 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

Just about to highly recommend Gone Girl as well then saw it had been already -- really interesting narrative structure that keeps you on your toes; how's that for a vague spoiler-free recommendation?
posted by MaddyRex at 5:58 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agatha Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd"
posted by jaguar at 6:05 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, the type of narrator you're describing is called an "unreliable narrator," though you're looking at rather extreme examples. That term might help with your searching, through.
posted by jaguar at 6:09 AM on February 22, 2013

I never clued in for Kevin. I got Defending Jacob maybe halfway through, and Gone Girl within the first few chapters. Ian McEwan writes this sort of story structure a lot (again, and again, and again).

I once read something by Jeffrey Deaver who said essentially that he would never do that sort of twist ending for a novel, because he thinks it cheats the readers, but he will occasionally do it for a short story. It's really interesting to see how he works without using the "Major character is evil!" story.
posted by jeather at 6:11 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Next" by James Hynes.

Do not read anything about it first.
posted by Lucinda at 6:12 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read the book when it first came out, and the thing that really threw me was when I realised the husband was dead - I don't remember much abotu the rampage, so perhaps that was less shocking to me. It was a few months away from the book being a big talking point here so there would have been no spoilers.

I recently read Julian Barnes' A Sense Of an Ending - the style is literary rather than thriller, but there is a very shocking reveal halfway through that seems to come out of nowhere - we learn something about the narrator which sets the context for the rest of the story. That too has an unreliable narrator. You might also enjoy Alan Bennett's series of monologues (you can get these in print) Talking Heads - the ones performed by Patricia Routledge work in twists very nicely.
posted by mippy at 6:22 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, AM Holmes' The End Of Alice is similar - the narrator is a man imprisoned for a crime involving a child, but the reveal of what actually happened (as I recall you are aware in WNTTAK that Kevin is 'damaged' in some way from the start) is difficult to bear. It's, er, quite graphic in parts so one to avoid if sexual violence is an issue for you.
posted by mippy at 6:25 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read We Need to Talk about Kevin and I was pretty shocked when it was revealed that he killed both the husband and daughter.

I am reading Gone Girl now. I am only about 20 pages in but so far I am enjoying it. It's another one of those books where it's clear that everything will be revealed in time...

I just finished Silver Linings Playbook before starting Gone Girl, and that's another that I would recommend. When it starts out, you're not sure what the heck is up with the narrator, and it is slowly revealed (I haven't seen the movie yet; obviously if you have it won't be a surprise to you).
posted by amro at 6:40 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel like every one of Jodi Picoult's books are like this.
posted by lyssabee at 6:41 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just read the first paragraph of the plot description on wikipedia of the movie version of Silver Linings Playbook, and it seems to differ substantially from the book.
posted by amro at 6:44 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of Kazuo Ishiguro's books have this kind of thing. Never Let Me Go (which will also be spoiled going in if you've seen the movie) and The Remains of the Day are my favorite.
posted by something something at 6:52 AM on February 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

Ooh, I haven't read it but I have seen the movie: The Prestige (awesome movie by the way). I've heard that the book is good too and it is my understanding that much is revealed primarily through the diary entries of two characters. Maybe someone who has read the book can confirm that the ending is a surprise like in the movie.
posted by amro at 7:04 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The best example of this I've ever read is Liar by Justine Larbalestier, a book where he narrator knows the truth and refuses to share it with you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:06 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ooh, I haven't read it but I have seen the movie: The Prestige (awesome movie by the way). I've heard that the book is good too and it is my understanding that much is revealed primarily through the diary entries of two characters. Maybe someone who has read the book can confirm that the ending is a surprise like in the movie.

The ending has a twist, but it's very different from (and not as satisfying as) the movie. Also, Fight Club, both versions, though the twist comes for the narrator simultaneously as it does for the reader.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:07 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz has that wildly unreliable narrator you're looking for.
posted by Specklet at 7:34 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm with mippy, Kevin didn't surprise me, but the dead husband and daughter completely shocked me. And seconding Liar for really good, but extremely unreliable narrator.
posted by ansate at 7:47 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I suspected something was up with We Need To Talk About Kevin because Eva was talking about her daughter but didn't have the daughter with her. I think I presumed that Kevin killed his sister but not his father, so it was a bit of a shock but I wasn't totally blindsided.

I agree with others that Gone Girl was similar; I loved the first part of the book but by the end, I was furious that I had wasted my time reading it. I've talked to several others who feel the same way.

And 2nding Next by James Hynes. The ending blew me away.
posted by jabes at 8:03 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before I Go to Sleep is a bit like this -- not an unreliable narrator exactly but amnesiac, which achieves a similar effect.
posted by pete_22 at 8:39 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Code Name Verity. It's a YA book, but it's good. If you plan to read it, don't read any reviews, just in case.
posted by peep at 8:50 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

It did seem to me like something was up--and the rampage was set up early--but the end was still a surprise to me. (What was really lacking for me in the movie compared to the book was the mother's role in Kevin's development; in the movie he was clearly a monster but the book made it much more ambiguous--something you might lose if you'd seen the movie first.)

A great example of a similar structure (and an unreliable narrator) is John Lanchester's A Debt to Pleasure, though I can't remember how late the reveal was.
posted by carrienation at 9:31 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

While reading "Kevin" I posited and rejected the surprise ending because I didn't want to deal with thinking about what happened to the daughter. To this day I'm wondering if this reaction was foreseen/intended by the author. The greatest act of authorial sadism I believe I've ever encountered.

In the pulp arena, Ted Dekker's "Adam" gives a fine gut-punch surprise.
posted by Infinity_8 at 9:39 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch.
posted by Svejk at 10:31 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I thought the daughter was either dead or living with the husband through most of my reading of 'We Need to Talk...'

I really imagined the husband as estranged as I listened to the letters, but maybe 2/3 of the way through the book, I really started to question why the narrator lived in such complete isolation and revilement with absolutely no contact from her other family. I really like the idea that she kept living in the same town as a sort of hairshirt.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:54 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:43 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler. It's not a thriller, per se, but Flannery is a GREAT unreliable narrator.
posted by jeudi at 12:16 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I didn't realise at all until it was outright stated although I did wonder why the daughter wasn't with her.

If you read Before I go to sleep and like it then you might also enjoy How to be a good wife by Emma Chapman which is has a similar structure but is more ambiguous.
posted by Laura_J at 3:04 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just finished "The Dinner" by Herman Koch and would recommend it.
posted by Lucinda at 6:16 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the answers so far! I've been thinking about this kind of book ever since reading Presumed Innocent quite a ways back. As one of the reviewers of Defending Jacob (I think) said, these books demand a certain amount of trust from the reader, that the payback will be sufficient. What drove me to ask this question with We Need to Talk About Kevin was, I wondered if I would have kept reading had I thought it was "only" the story of a kid who committed a Columbine-type crime, which is the position a lot of readers are in. I might have thought (as getawaysticks suggests) that the letter format was sort of off, somehow. And yes, the letters were so detailed-- not to mention being so friendly, if they were estranged. That turns out to be a tour de force, in a sense. You may find it perplexing or you may rationalize that of course someone would be obsessively going over the past in a situation like that. But as long as you keep reading, you are buying into it. And there are sentences that seem like direct references to the truth but they are concealed by a lot of other stuff happening in the same paragraph. Eva's prolixity becomes a kind of fog machine.

I think there is a high potential for irritation and indeed, as Deaver put it, feeling cheated. I had to give up reading Thomas Cook because this technique becomes so heavy-handed in his books. The narrators are always saying in effect, "Just wait, I promise it's going to be big." It's too bad because the stories are pretty compelling but it just started to seem like a tic.

I'd love to go on about some of the other books people have mentioned. To me, Never Let Me Go is a great example because the secret is in plain sight. "You've been told, and yet you haven't been," one of the teachers says to the kids, and that is true of the reader too. The realization, not just of what but of how, kind of seeps in as you read. And I don't remember if this was more the movie or the book, but the teacher who came out with the information seemed rather pathetic. It felt like telling the literal truth didn't really reveal much.

Thanks for the recommendations. I would have downloaded Next instantly, but it's not on the Nook.
posted by BibiRose at 7:56 AM on February 23, 2013

Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys is my go-to recommendation for unreliable narrators, after the previously-mentioned Liar.
posted by hades at 4:01 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is a weird coincidence that thiswas on HuffPo the day before-- above all, that "Kevin" is included. I just saw it today.

It's even stranger because I hadn't thought of this as being a question about unreliable narrators per se. More about crime novels in which not the "who done it," but the "how done it," "why done it" or "done what" were in question, plus the narrator was deeply implicated.

I do love this thread. I can't believe I hadn't read Roger Ackroyd yet.
posted by BibiRose at 5:35 AM on February 25, 2013

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