‘Lullaby’ by Leïla Slimani

Lullaby

The UK edition

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2018. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2016. It is the kind of novel that will give anyone who has a nanny pause for thought, for it centres around a rather abhorrent crime carried out by a seemingly perfect au pair, catching everyone by surprise.

I’m going to be completely up front and say I didn’t much like this book, which is known as The Perfect Nanny in some territories.

As much as I love dark fiction — goodness knows I read a lot of it — this one didn’t sit right with me. It felt distasteful, shocking for the sake of being shocking, and I didn’t find it terribly convincing. I haven’t read any other reviews of it, but going by what the bookseller in Waterstone’s Piccadilly told me the other day, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Be careful what you wish for

The story, which is set in modern-day Paris, opens in dramatic fashion: two young siblings, Adam and Mila, are murdered by their nanny. Their mother, Myriam, is in a state of shock — “that was what the paramedics said, what the police repeated, what the journalists wrote”.

The story then spools back to Myriam and her husband’s search for someone to look after their two children so that Myriam can return to work as a lawyer. This isn’t a decision they take lightly. Indeed, Myriam’s husband Paul is a bit put out that she would want to return to work at all. But they carry out thorough checks (“no illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers”) and then give the job to Louise, an older woman who has a grown up daughter of her own and an air of self-assurance.

When she describes that first interview, Myriam loves to say that it was instantly obvious. Like love at first sight. […] Paul and Myriam are charmed by Louise, by her smooth features, her open smile, her lips that do not tremble. She appears imperturbable. She looks like a woman able to understand and forgive everything. Her face is like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no-one.

The North America / Australia cover: notice the different title

The perfect nanny

Once hired, Louise turns out to be the perfect nanny. She makes herself indispensable by not only looking after the children who adore her, but by going above and beyond her role to run the household efficiently, keeping the apartment looking immaculate, doing the grocery shopping, hosting extravagant dinner parties and staying late without complaint. She quickly becomes a vital part of family life.

But the relationship is one-sided. Not that Myriam or Paul ever recognise this. Neither of them takes the time to find out about Louise’s own home life, which is lonely and troubled. It’s only when the taxman comes hunting for her that the cracks begin to appear in a carefully maintained facade.

You know the saying, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is”? I can’t help thinking that if Myriam and Paul had taken heed of that instead of selfishly taking Louise for granted, then the abhorrent murder that robs them of their children would never had occurred.

If nothing else, this novel is a dire warning about middle-class complacency, about wanting to have it all and not being prepared to see that everything comes at a cost.

As for the crime at the heart of this novel, I still can’t understand the point of it: did Louise just go mad or did she deliberately destroy Myriam’s most precious “possessions” to make a point that you should never take your children for granted? Or perhaps she just hated those kids and had been pretending she loved them all along? Book groups the world over will have a field day with this one!

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22 thoughts on “‘Lullaby’ by Leïla Slimani

  1. Completely agree ! Read it in French with my bookgroup here ….not one of us rated it ! I thought the ‘set up’ was promising but it just seemed to unravel and ultimately I wasn’t convinced by it .

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    • I just didn’t understand Louise’s motivations. And maybe that’s the author’s point, that we can never understand why seemingly normal, competent people carry out abhorrent crimes. But I didn’t like the insinuation that Louise was a criminal because she was poor and lived in a rough neighbourhood, while the upper middle-class family living in a nice apartment in an upmarket area could only ever be victims…

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  2. Ooh – interesting! It’s on my shelf – I hope to get to it sooner or later and see which way I go with it. 🙂

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    • I really thought that it would be my thing, so I was surprised to find it wasn’t. I just didn’t get the point of it. It made me slightly uncomfortable about the author’s motivations.

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    • Oh, you have a good memory, Bill! I don’t remember that part (but I did read the book about 35 years ago!). I can’t even fathom why Louise, in Lullaby, killed those kids. To me it didn’t make sense… she doesn’t seem to bear grudges.

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  3. I’ll raise my head above the parapet to say I found this story compelling. Working in a public library you’re exposed to all sorts of behaviour which, frighteningly, seems to be escalating. We’ve also chased down a fair few toddlers who managed to escape their nanny’s care (yikes). It’s a massive leap of faith to leave your child with someone you don’t know, and I chose to leave full-time employment rather than risk it, but was lucky enough to have a choice.
    Whether the story is believable or not, it kept me turning pages despite the fact this sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea at all! This would make an excellent book club read for its polarizing factor.

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  4. I just posted a review of ‘Lullaby’ that is about as negative as yours. I really don’t think this best-selling novel has the literary quality to be competing for the Goncourt Prize. I found the writing rather bland despite the sensational horrific story.

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  5. My understanding is that the murder is based on a true story. In the novel it suggests she kills them not out of revenge but because she wants Myrium to have another child and they are ‘in the way’. (Not that I’m saying this is rational, but surely the point is that the couple don’t notice she is losing her sanity). While it won’t be in my books of the year, I found Lullaby to have a lot to recommend it – including its attack on middle class complacency you mention above. I think you’re right that it will make a good book for discussion!

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    • Ah… that does make sense… towards the end she’s eager for Myriam to have a baby so perhaps her twisted logic is that if she kills the children Myriam will have to replace them by getting pregnant…

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    • Funny, isn’t it? I really thought this book would be one I love, because I do like dark fiction, but there was something rather icky about this one and I wasn’t convinced by the prose, either.

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  7. I’ve been seeing this cover around a lot, but yours is the first review I’ve read of it. It sounds like a horrifying crime, but I’m not sure it’s one I want to read about. I stayed home with my kids because I was afraid I wouldn’t like anyone else’s approach to raising them – it would never have crossed my mind that they could be murdered! Can you imagine the guilt and the “what ifs” the parents would carry for the rest of their lives?

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    • I suspect that’s kind of what the author was hinting at: that mothers should stay at home and look after their own children rather than pass that responsibility to someone else. There’s a recurring theme throughout the novel about both parents taking the nanny for granted and not really being interested in her life outside of their front door. The message seems to be that if they’d paid a bit more attention to the nanny they might have spotted the signs that she was troubled mentally / psychologically.

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