Lullaby

There is a moment towards the end of Leila Slimani’s Lullaby (translated by Sam Taylor)when Paul and Myriam, driving home, spot their nanny, Louise, on the street:

“She wonders where Louise is going, if it was really her, what she was doing there… The fact of having seen her on that pavement by chance, in a place so far from their usual haunts, makes her desperately curious. For the first time she tries to imagine, in a corporeal sense, everything Louise is when she’s not with them.”

From the first page we have known that Louise will murder Paul and Myriam’s two children. (“The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.” looks likely to be a much quoted opening) That, after months in their home, Myriam is only now, after a chance encounter, considering Louise as a person with an existence outside her role as nanny is the self-deception which lies at the heart of Slimani’s novel.

Myriam’s ability to shape her perception of reality around her own expectations begins with her decision to be the perfect mother to her daughter Mila:

“Myriam absolutely refused to consider using a babysitter. She alone was capable of meeting her daughter’s needs.”

The not unusual pressure she places on herself elicits sympathy from the reader, particularly when she has a second child, Adam, and her feelings begin to change:

“She didn’t realise the magnitude of the task she had taken on. With two children, everything became more complicated: shopping, bath time, house work, visits to the doctor… Myriam became gloomy. She began to hate going to the park.”

(Going to the park becomes resonant with maternal love and will later feature in Louise’s deterioration). When she tells Paul that she wants to return to work he seems surprised, an indication that their seemingly harmonious relationship is based on a shared understanding of how they wish their life to appear rather than an observant empathy. Witness, for example, their preparations for interviewing for a nanny:

“They want the nannies to see that they are good people; serious, orderly people who try to give their children the best of everything.”

Similarly, they are happy to take Louise at face value: “My nanny is a miracle-worker,” says Myriam; she describes their first meeting “like love at first sight.” On her first day, arriving early, Louise waits outside until Paul leaves, not wanting to disturb them. It’s not long, however, until Myriam returns to find “she didn’t recognise her own apartment any more” as Louise has rearranged it for Mila’s birthday party. Louise insinuates herself into the family slowly and subtly, for example when Myriam arrives home one Friday having not seen her children all week and tells her she can leave, she offers to stay and make their supper while Myriam ‘enjoys’ them:

“As the weeks pass, Louise becomes ever better at being simultaneously invisible and indispensable.”

“You look at her and you do not see her,” we are told: a sentence which suggests both her discretion and the inability of Paul and Myriam to interpret her individuality. Eventually Paul drunkenly suggests to Louise that she can come on holiday with them; the next morning, expecting Myriam to be angry, he finds she is instead delighted:

“That’ll be so great! For once, we’ll have a real holiday.”

Slimani has spoken of wanting to write about “someone who I don’t understand,” that is, to reach an understanding of a character through writing about them, undertaking the very task which Paul and Myriam fail to attempt. The opening murder engages the reader in the very same purpose – we know what has happened but not why. The novel’s success is also predicated on preying on our greatest fears:

“I tried to use all my deepest fears and all my nightmares: losing my children, living with someone I think I know, but actually I don’t know her at all.”

Myriam’s own fears are also linked to her children:

“Ever since her children were born, Myriam has been scared of everything. Above all, she is scared that they will die.”

Lullaby deserves its success. It’s a book you will want to read in one sitting and, if child murder is always a little Grand Guignol, this is also a fiercely thoughtful, provocative novel, in particular its dissection of the idea that women can easily have it all. Gender, class, our self-absorption and our selfishness, all come under Slimani’s pitiless scalpel.

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8 Responses to “Lullaby”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve been seeing this everywhere, and it sounds dark – probably somewhere I would feel a bit uncomfortable going as even though my children are very grown up, that parent’s fear of losing them still hangs around…

  2. Bellezza Says:

    I have just picked this up from the library, piqued by all the attention it’s getting, but more so from the fact that it’s translated from French and won the Goncourt prize.

  3. Caroline Says:

    I bought the French recently as it sounded really good. Your review confirms that. It’s a topic that’s often used in crime and thriller writing but the approach here is quite different. I don’t have kids but if I had the idea of having a stranger look after them would make me feel very uncomfortable.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s very much a why rather than a whodunnit, and I don’t think anybody comes out of it looking good. Though I’ve never been close to employing a nanny, it still makes you reflect on the responsibilities of having children.

  4. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a novel quite unlike anything I expected | Dolce Bellezza Says:

    […] Find an excellent review on 1st Reading’s Blog. […]

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