Lullaby by Leila Slimani
Translated from the French Chanson Douce (2016) by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber, 2018)
I encountered Leila Slimani and her work in the New York Times Review of Books, months before the English translation came to market. My fingers raced across the keyboard to Amazon, only to find I had to wait four months before copies would become available, and for the first time ever (okay, outside of pre-ordering the Harry Potter books for my daughter) I placed an order and held my breath.
The opening sentence, which plays on the book jacket above the title, and repeated in multiple reviews in multiple papers around the world, is a bare, unadorned statement.
“The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.”
So you have the grisly end to the story, which is the beginning of an exploration of the multiple complexities that structure our lives and the dynamics that ensue when people from different worlds come together. A young couple, intelligent, ambitious, and aware in the manner of the urbane liberal middle class, wish to hire a nanny to care for their two children when the mother, a brilliant lawyer, goes back to work after a baby break. “No illegal immigrants, agreed?….to look after the little ones, it’s too dangerous.” Says Myriam to her husband, Paul, as they stage their small apartment to convey an assurance they barely feel, to receive the applicants for the post. “She is awaiting this nanny as if she is the Savior.”
Louise is perfect (the title of the North American edition is The Perfect Nanny), with a face “like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.” She brings the much-needed order to their household, coaxing the children into good behaviour and rustling up delectable home-cooked meals that win the work-worn hearts of the parents who return from their demanding jobs, tired and grateful. Most importantly, she gives them back their time with each other, allowing them to rediscover an intimacy they had lost to parenthood.
But Louise’s own life is cold and empty, one of rejection, deprivation, and a million broken dreams and as she fills it, more and more, with the lives of Miriyam’s children, Mila and Adam, “The silent apartment is completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness.”
Lullaby is a thriller told in reverse, a deliberate forensic examination of how something comes to be. The deliberate distance maintained by the narration, as if you are watching it all unfold through a six-inch thick pane of glass, in slow motion, makes it all the more powerful. Slimani takes us deep into the emotional labyrinth of motherhood, where it is not all sacrifice and smiles, but also resentment, rage, regret, confusion. She carefully dissects the hypocrisies of class difference, complicated as it is these days with carefully hidden attitudes to race, ethnicity and gender. She explores what it means to nurture children that are not your own, who unhesitatingly betray your love by running into a parent’s arms the moment you set them down. Miriyam and Paul love Louise, but they are also a little frightened of her, and at times, hate that they are reminded that they have so much, and she, so little. After all, they live in a fashionable part of Paris, a neighbourhood where people “offer friendly greetings even if they don’t know each other” while Louise escapes every day from a bare one-room apartment to fulfil Miriyam’s “guiltily nursed” fantasies of an idyllic family life.
We know how it all ends, but the fascination with the question of why keeps one reading. Apart from the central characters—Louise, Miriyam, Paul and the children—there are others, bit players in this drama that shapes people, shapes events.
Slimani’s style is one of short, sometimes even brusque, sentences that allow the scene to unfold, but don’t let you linger. The novel moves forward in tension-filled bursts, told almost entirely in present tense, giving the reader the sense that you can’t tarry or you might be left behind as the narrative moves relentlessly towards its end.
It’s no surprise that the novel won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016. It is nothing like your regular whodunit; after all, we know who did it right from the start.