When the Orange Prize was set up ten years ago, I remember a newspaper calling up and asking me to attack it. I was tempted. Why, after all, should novels be treated as a special case if their author possesses a vagina? Isn't the creation of fiction above matters of gender? Since then, my views have changed, as has the literary scene. I no longer believe that women's fiction is reviewed fairly - if it is reviewed at all - and the Orange has persistently picked out serious women writers of real quality who would never get shortlisted for the Booker or Whitbread.
Lionel Shriver is a case in point. As an American living in London, she faces the added disadvantage of being an expatriate - something she shares with the Boston-born short story writer Rachel Ingalls. Like Ingalls, she was published by Faber & Faber, in the days when it was run by editors rather than accountants. Her fifth novel, Game Control, was one of the best works of fiction about Africa I've ever read, but it sold only a few hundred copies and is now out of print. That is not likely to happen to her seventh, We Need To Talk About Kevin. A bestseller in the United States, its coverage here has been minimal. Yet it is one of the most striking works of fiction to be published this year.
The novel takes the form of a series of letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin. Their teenage son, Kevin, has committed a Columbine-style atrocity, murdering several of his classmates. Eva, now living alone, is being sued by the mother of one of the victims for being a bad parent (something that litigation-mad Americans have actually attempted). Her letters recall how the mature bliss of their marriage disintegrated on the arrival of the infant incubus Kevin.
Shriver explodes every myth of motherhood with fiendish wit, ruthlessly exposing the mind-bending tedium, ingratitude and hypocrisy that intelligent professional women struggle with, even if they are not mother to a Kevin. Martin Amis's monstrous child character Marmaduke, in London Fields, has nothing on this boy, who screams, bites and terrifies his Irish Catholic nanny (who stays for a year only because she believes he is her penance). Eva has to give up the travel writer's job she loves, moves to the suburbs and does her best to raise her unlovable, delinquent son. It is Desperate Housewives as written by Euripides.
Part of the tension of Shriver's tale comes from the tragedy of Eva's marriage to a stupid, good-hearted Republican husband who can see only the American dream of fatherhood. As a political satire on the way family life is promoted in the US, it is the blackest of black comedies. The narrative jumps rather too quickly from Kevin's babyhood to his adolescence (an inevitable consequence, perhaps, of its epistolary nature: these being the two most harrowing times for parents), but it springs a dramatic surprise as a result.
Eva is an unreliable narrator, and scrutiny of the crimes she attributes to her son reveal that she has always believed the worst of him. Did he really blind his sister, whom Eva loves, or was it just an accident? Should a nursery-school child really be seen as calculating and clever? Searingly witty, seemingly honest, Eva is actually a seething mass of snobbery and hate. As she coos to her infant: "Mummy was happy before widdle Kevin came awong, you know that, don't you? And now Mummy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France. Mummy's life sucks now, doesn't Mummy's life suck? Do you
know that there are some days Mummy would rather be dead?"
There can be few parents who have not felt this way, if only for a minute, about their child, and the ultimate knife twist is that Eva does learn to love, when it's too late. Like Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work, this is an account of what it must be like to become a mother while having no talent for motherhood, but it is also a powerful, gripping and original meditation on evil - a novel that only a female writer could have written, but one that, in this country, has come too close to being ignored.
Amanda Craig's latest novel, Love in Idleness, is published in paperback by Abacus