Book review: Adele, by Leila Slimani

Adele Robinson is a successful, attractive woman in her 30s. She has a handsome surgeon husband at home, a good career as a journalist in Paris and a young son. But she also has a secret: an addiction to sex – unpleasant, loveless sex with strangers.

Leila Slimani
Leila Slimani

There is nothing erotic about Adele’s liaisons: she merely has an itch which needs scratching, in increasingly violent, disturbing and unpleasant ways. Her need is dealt with in no different a way to an addiction to nicotine, or to heroin. She is an addict, something which those around her struggle to handle and which she seems to accept as a part of her, apparently feeling no remorse or guilt for her conquests, who range from her friend’s partner to her editor at work.

Her character is absolutely unsympathetic, yet strangely compelling. She appears to have little passion for anyone or anything in her life, including her child, her husband of nine years or even her job, into which she puts only the bare minimum amount of effort, finding it interesting only in that it allows her to “invent secret rendezvous, without having to justify herself”.

Although only just translated into English following the success of Leila Slimani’s Lullaby, which told the story of a nanny who kills her young charges, Adele was actually the author’s first published novel, a fact which is perhaps betrayed in the biographical similarities between the main character and Slimani herself who, like Adele, spent a period as a journalist reporting on North Africa.

Born in Morocco, but with dual Moroccan-French citizenship, Slimani moved to France when she was 17. She has made it clear in interviews that she does not want to deal with issues of race and religion, which she has said is “what is expected” of North African writers. The success of Lullaby, which was the most read book in France in 2016 and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, has propelled her into the public spotlight in France: she was appointed champion of French language by book-loving French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017.

Slimani has a sparse, almost simplistic style, translated beautifully into English by Sam Taylor, which makes it easy for the reader to face her unusual themes. She has claimed that she does not set out to shock her readers, merely that she deals with topics which fascinate her, in a bid to explore characters she does not understand. It is difficult not to wonder what might come next. - Jane Bradley

Adele, by Leila Slimani, Translated by Sam Taylor, Faber & Faber, £12.99