I knew my Mum’s obsession with Wimbledon would come in handy one day

Double Fault
by Lionel Shriver

I picked up this book, like many people have, I suspect, because I was bowled over by We Need to Talk About Kevin and was hoping for more of the same hard-hitting, emotionally draining, intelligently frightening fiction. This was a good book, but it wasn’t those things; not really.

It does cover some of the same ground, though. This is a dissection of a modern marriage, a tumultuous story of two large egos struggling to adapt to loving someone. There’s a lot of introspection, a lot of dissection, a lot of resentment and only brief euphoric highs.

The background is the world of professional tennis and Shriver has clearly done some homework here. As I often find to be the case, I found a lot of the detailed descriptions of matches or point systems to be laboured and dull. But then I’m really not a sports fan. And the book isn’t really about tennis so it’s probably okay that I started skimming those passages.

What it’s really about is doggedly pursuing ambition in the face of many reasons not to, confusing your self with your ability, gender politics in relationships, and the difficult questions of marriage itself – should it change you? Should love have already changed you so that the compromises of marriage are a breeze? What if your career requires you to be the sort of person who never compromises? How do you switch that off when you get home? Plus the added complications of being a professional athlete – being away from home a lot, having to fit in training – and you have a marriage that seems doomed from the start.

I was not bowled over by this book but I do think it was well done, so I think I have to admit that my problem was mostly with the main characters and my inability to connect with them. Wilhelmina “Willy” Novinsky had some charm at first in her noviceness at relationships, it is sweet to see her being won over. But she has so much anger in her, and is so ready to blame everyone else in her life when things go wrong, that I lost all empathy with her.

The writing is good, with believable dialogue that occasionally raised a chuckle or a wry smile of familiarity from me. There’s an early scene where Willy is on a date and senses that she is being scored on her answers to some probing questions. The one question she won’t answer is the lighthearted assertion that she must be having an affair with her coach. It’s a neat way of introducing the possibility, and the air of disappointment and uncertainty that flavours the whole book.

The back of my copy had a couple of pages of reading group questions, and I do think this could be a good choice for a book club. There’s a lot I’d love to discuss that I can’t raise here without giving away key plot points, particularly in the gender politics area.

First published 2006.

More chills than Hitchcock

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I can only imagine that everyone who has read this novel came away with the same dumbstruck combination of awe and horror. It is an absolutely terrifying book. The twists in the story rarely manage to surprise but they do keep it interesting and the narrative remains believable and human at all times.

For the three people in the world who don’t know, the story is told in the form of letters from a woman, Eva, to her husband, all talking about their son Kevin; a son who took a gun to school and killed several of his classmates, a son who was always chillingly distant, detached and unreachable, a son who manipulated his parents from a very young age. Eva always felt that he was evil, or at least capable of evil things, but was desperate for that not to be true and tries hard to rationalise Kevin’s actions as a consequence of her parenting.

The details of the horrific homicidal rampage are gradually eked out inbetween tales of Kevin as a baby, about Eva’s life before him; but most of all about her feelings as a mother who cannot connect with her child.

I am not always a fan of books that are quite this introspective and self-examining, but this book is utterly brilliant. I am torn between thinking that everyone should read this to understand a little more about how hard parenting can be and how huge an effect the tiniest decisions can have, and wanting to protect everyone I love from the awfulness of the book’s events and conclusions.

Published 2006 by Serpent’s Tail.
Winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

UPDATE: I can highly recommend listening to the episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Lionel Shriver discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to July 2009.