Book review: Lullaby, by Leïla Slimani

Journalist and author Leila Slimani PIC: Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images
Journalist and author Leila Slimani PIC: Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images
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This is a remarkable novel, for which Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Man Booker Prize. It is dark, ambiguous, disturbing and arresting. Parts of it reminded me of Muriel Spark or Patricia Highsmith in its askance morality; at the same time it has the precision, the slight surrealism deployed to highlight reality and the questions about women, bodies and feminism that typify other French language writers, such as Marie Darrieussecq or Amélie Nothomb.

The English language version of Chanson Douce – translated by Sam Taylor – is strikingly different to the French editions in that the cover is emblazoned with a “grab-line”: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.” There are a few points where translation is difficult. You can’t really translate Monoprix, or include a footnote about the social difference between tu and vous – though in a novel about class distinctions that seems a necessary territory.

The novel begins with its ending, so there is no spoiler in this. Myriam is a French-Algerian lawyer who is returning to work after having had two children. Her husband, Paul, is a music producer. Both are reluctant to take on all the responsibilities of parenthood. Therefore they decide to employ a nanny – Louise – to take care of Mila and Adam. From the outset, the reader knows that something will go wrong: one child is dead, another injured and the nanny is in the bath with knife-wounds on her wrists. The question is, in some ways, is there a twist or is the twist that there is no twist? Louise seems to be the ideal candidate – the novel even references Mary Poppins – but it gets much darker than “Chim Chim Cheree”. Louise has a repertoire of bizarre and odd stories, about unicorns, ogres and princesses, but none of them from the canon, as it were.

There are plenty of trails, false or otherwise. Why does little Mila bite people? Why does Paul absent himself as often as possible? Myriam is trying to be a good mother as well as a defender of people accused of crimes. And at the centre of it all is Louise, a woman who has been employed but at the same time has inveigled her way into the home, made herself indispensable to the vaguely glamorous couple. Being the nanny does not always mean cleaning the sheets and cooking for the dinner parties. A question at the heart of this elegantly nasty novel is: what happens when they grow up?

Of course, the ancestor to all this is The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, another novella about a governess, a male and female child, and a double version of what toxic masculinity and femininity might be. But where James invokes the supernatural, Slimani focuses on the tragically banal. Her depictions of the constrained circumstances of Louise are striking in their ordinariness. However much her employers might plead their plight, she is the one going back to a one-room apartment. Much is made of her “varnished” nails and purple eye-shadow. It seems this is a metaphor for her whole character. As long as you can conceal yourself, there is no need to reveal yourself.

Louise is a very strange character to describe. In fact the book eschews giving the reader directions about who she is. How old is she, with her blonde and greying hair? Is her fling with an old man indicative of desperation or abuse? Each time she comes into focus, she also elides, or slides, into a kind of absence. Even the descriptions of her clothes – her “Peter Pan” collar dress is frequently mentioned – mean that she is a costume more than a person. Nobody seems to notice she wears the same thing every day. While it is made clear that Myriam is of a mixed background, and although we are told about the pale hands of Louise, it is never totally clear how one might envision Louise.

The narrative cleverly interpolates some of the stories of others, including Louise’s ex-husband, her landlord, her daughter, and the nosy next door neighbour who thinks she knows more than she knows.

The book has a remarkable fluency with tense: given it begins at the end, it shuffles between future tense, past tense, past continuous and present (kudos to the translator). It is almost fidgety about time, and that makes it all the more horrific when time stands still.

This clever, eerie novel will leave some readers reeling. Who did commit an act of unspeakable horror? Who is the real victim? That it leaves the reader on a suspended chord is why it is a worthy winner of the Prix Goncourt. That it uses the conventions of the crime novel to analyse exclusion, mobility, poverty and privilege is admirable; that it does so while still being subtle and sophisticated is more than admirable.

Hopefully, the success of this novel will make Leïla Slimani a better known name, and her previous works can be made available to an Anglophone audience.

Lullaby, by Leïla Slimani, Faber & Faber, £12.99