It takes a brave author to begin a novel by revealing the ending. The strategy could have gone horribly wrong for Leïla Slimani in Lullaby; her tale of a nanny who morphs from little miss perfect into a monster.
But this is a novel so deftly written that it doesn’t matter that we we know from the first few pages that the nanny ends up killing the two children in her care. What really keeps us reading is the desire to discover her motive and to learn what brought her to commit such an appalling deed.
Slimani takes her time in providing the answers; dropping clues and leaving hints while slowly ratcheting up the tension. Though we know the outcome there is still a strong sense of dread as details are revealed. As one reviewer commented on the back of my copy: “I defy you to read the disturbing opening sentences and not be compelled to read on.”
Compelling this novel undoubtedly is but it would be unfair to think of it purely in terms of its thrill factor. For Slimani has given us a novel that rests on an experience shared by many working parents in the twentieth century: the struggle between their desire for a rewarding, successful career and their desire to be with their children.
Myriam, the mother in Lullaby, is a highly intelligent woman and ambitious. She loves her children but after a morning of tantrums and tedious domestic chores she longs for her own space. “They’re eating me alive,” she think. An unexpected meeting brings an opportunity to return to the legal world she loved before her marriage. Just one problem: what to do about the children? Her husband’s career as a music producer is about to take off so it’s not feasible for him to replace her as chief carer. They decide the only solution is to bring in a nanny, being careful to filter out unsuitable candidates. “No illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers,” they agree.
With her smartly polished shoes, prim Peter Pan collar and neatly polished nails, Louise appears the answer to their prayers. She becomes indispensable, bringing order to the couple’s cramped Paris apartment; enchanting the children with her games and stories and creating delicious meals. They treat her like a family member at times, taking her on their holiday to Greece.
“My nanny is a miracle-worker'” Myriam tells her friends and colleagues.
But the magic wears off. After one incident involving his daughter, Paul decides he can’t stand their nanny any longer. Myriam begins to fret that she is losing the connection with her children. They relate more to their nanny than they do to her. A chilling episode involving a chicken carcass causes Myriam to think that Louise might be dangerous, or mad.
But the parental concerns come too late.
Are the murders some kind of punishment for parents who put personal ambitions ahead of their children’s wellbeing? That’s one interpretation. Equally feasible is that Slimani is making a point about parents who entrust their precious possessions to a stranger with only the flimsiest of background checks. So wrapped up are Myriam and Paul in their own lives that they never consider their nanny has a life — and problems — of her own.
Slimani deftly makes her readers more conscious of Louise as an individual than her employers ever do, showing this woman as a lonely figure, a woman who has never once had anyone to care for her or to make her a meal. In Myriam and Paul’s home and family she finds what she never had. When it becomes evident that her future in this “warm hiding place” is under threat, she becomes unhinged.
Lullaby is a deeply powerful novel that asks questions but doesn’t provide any easy answers. Though I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I can’t get it out of my head. Easily the best book I’ve read this year.
Leila Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby. A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Faber will publish her new novel Adèle in February 2019