‘This is how it happens. There is nothing and then, suddenly, something. A family is making dinner, talking, laughing, and then the outside world muscles in.’
“Dr. Allen, your son killed the next president of the United States.” – Ten words that no parent would ever wish to hear; words that no parent would ever even dream of hearing. Yet Dr Paul Allen, the narrator of this tale, ‘a man who had found contentment in life, happiness. A lucky man, who had come to expect good things’, is confronted with this reality in the middle of pizza-making with his second wife and their twin sons. Along with the rest of America, they watch the shocking news of the assassination of a charismatic Presidential candidate as it unfolds on their TVs. Minutes later, the Secret Service are at their front door revealing that the man arrested for the murder is Danny, the child of Paul’s first marriage.
Paul is instantly in denial, vehemently rejecting the possibility of his son’s guilt. A universe in which his son is able to commit murder is incomprehensible to him, and asking if Daniel is culpable is like asking ‘What if rain fell up instead of down?’ At one point, Daniel’s mother says ‘Danny shot Jesus’, as senator Seagram, though not black, was the fictional equivalent of Obama, a man who represented hope, a man loved by all.
Daniel’s actions spiral the lives of his family members into uncertainty and constant questioning, his father asking himself what he had done to make Daniel who he is, what could he have done differently?: ‘Was this what the rest of my life would be made of? Endless nights spent building alternate histories, running simulations, looking for a way out of the maze?’
Hawley explores the impact that divorce and absent parents have on children, questioning whether this core instability can extend into other parts of a person’s life. It is always too easy to point a finger at the parent, and they are always the ones that the public ultimately land up blaming and hating, ostracising them from society, allowing their shame to build a protective wall of ‘us’ and ‘them’, as if bad parenting were contagious.
Paul is not without his flaws, but his unrelenting devotion to his son (though perhaps now too late) is truly heart-breaking. Swearing that ‘his vindication would be my grail’ he does everything in his power to ‘save’ Danny. This soon develops into an obsession, him tirelessly collecting and collating all information related to the crime, him reading books on famous assassinations (McVeigh, Sirhan Sirhan, Hinckley) and sharing these details with the reader, him searching for similarities between these men and his son:
‘I had spent the last three months trying to compile the evidence, to add up all the moments from Danny’s childhood that could provide a diagnosis, a definitive answer as to who he was and why he did the things he did, and yet in life everything is open to interpretation. We see the past through the prism of our perception. When a man is indicted of a crime you review his life looking for patterns. Incidents that may have been meaningless before suddenly loom large. Look. He killed spiders. That must have been an early warning sign.’
We are asked many questions through the course of this book. Who do we apportion the blame to? Is there even a need to do so? Can blame spread beyond the culprit himself?
The desire to know what leads a human being to commit a heinous crime like this, is what propels this narrative, is the reason why I found myself hooked onto every word of every page. Is it that part of us that feels alone and disconnected from the world that comes forth and does what was previously thought to be impossible? ‘A person, alone in the dark, disappears little by little, piece by piece’ until they reformulate into a different person. But then this: ‘Understanding the reason makes killing reasonable.’ Murder cannot be cleanly boxed up and categorised.
Ultimately disillusioned (and perhaps also delusional) does Danny do what he feels needs to be done, searching for his place in history? The lack of logic in his thinking and in the thinking of other seemingly intelligent men always has the ability to infuriate me, but evidently ‘the world is full of twenty-year-olds with too much in the way of balls and not enough sense. This is what young men are good for. Revolution and murder.’ That Danny doesn’t fit into the stereotypical psychological profile of a killer is important. Hawley plays with notions of nature, nurture, destiny and chance, never quite pinning down the reason why things have turned out as they have. Ambiguity is the tool of great writers; it is what gives novels lasting impact.
I. LOVE. THIS. BOOK. But then again, I knew I would. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my favourite books, and as this also works with themes of parenthood and innate vs. learned characteristics, that I would enjoy it was inevitable. I’m surprised this book hasn’t had more media attention; I honestly believe it to be an astonishing achievement. There are so many profound passages in it, sentences that provide great insight into the human mind and human motivations, that my list of pages to quote from grew too long to attempt both cohesion and concision. A book that I could not wait to finish yet was sad when I finally did. It did not disappoint on any level, I cannot recommend this enough. Read it.
So I’ll leave you with these two thoughts to ponder on:
- ‘We’re not all put on this earth to do what’s right.’
- ‘You can’t make a good person do bad things. You can’t change who they are fundamentally in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. That’s science fiction. The only thing that can change who we are is life.’