Book Review: Lullaby [by Leïla Slimani]

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Image (c) goodreads.com

Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt, a major French literary prize, for this book. If you read it you’ll have a good indication as to why. This is a remarkable book, very immersive, very concrete, but somehow also abstract.

I have to say for me, part of it was the pitch – I mean, “killer nanny” is a strange pitch, and I totally fell for it. I saw it on a list (I can’t remember which) and put it aside in my head as a must-read. There’s no avoiding the directness of the subject matter, as it tells us on the cover and in the first chapter that The baby is dead. And we’re pretty sure it’s the nanny. But the novel isn’t wholly congruent with its homicidal pull quote- although that’s definitely a big part of it. What Slimani does, after introducing us to the tragedy in the opening chapter, is to take us back to the beginning, and simply narrate.

I don’t know how much was changed in translation, but I thought it suited the tone of the novel quite well. The story unfolds in simple present tense, with a storytelling style of almost clinical precision, which is a pleasing contrast, because the novel is heavy with implied emotion. Myriam and Paul Massé, living in the tenth arrondissement of Paris, are looking for a nanny for their young, somewhat difficult girl Mila, and their baby, Adam. Myriam, after graduating law school, did not get much of an opportunity to work. When she sees a chance, she is desperate to go back. And so the couple meets Lousie. They feel lucky to have found a nanny as perfect as her (in the US, apparently, this book was published under the title of The Perfect Nanny). She cooks, she cleans, the children love her, she enforces a sense of peace over the whole household – she’s kind and devoted, a resounding success, and life without her soon becomes unimaginable to the Massés. They trust her completely, but slowly, that trust is corroded, due to shifting attitudes on both sides.

Her face is like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.

Although this has been labelled as a thriller and a mystery, it’s really more about characterisation. It’s something of a mood palette. Slimani expertly chalks out detailed studies of perspective, moments in time, and perceptive variations. She describes things and leaves it to the reader to infer from there. She never really spells that much out clearly, we’re reading a string of events, examinations of a psyche, but there’s no real long exposition that releases every detail to the reader. She works to lead us down certain specific paths of thought without being too direct. If you start reading this hoping for a straight answer, the book doesn’t really give you that. We already know how it ends. Instead, Slimani uses very strong suggestive narration to read emotion throughout the novel. A running theme is women as caregivers coping with the same role. The novel contains a strong undercurrent of eerie unease, and its tension is never quite resolved, but I think, ultimately, that’s a good thing. As a reader, you’re forced to make those leaps of the imagination yourself.

This isn’t a very long novel, so I don’t think this review will be any longer, but in its textured simplicity, there’s a lot to appreciate. It’s clever and intense and carries great depth. At the end of the novel, you’re really not sure if your sympathy lies with one party alone. I’m glad I read this and didn’t put it off for much longer, and I look forward to reading more of Slimani’s works.

PS, we made it through February. Hello, March!

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

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