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 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!