Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, Leïla Slimani, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Leïla Slimani’s much-lauded Lullaby, a novel about a nanny who murders her young charges, and I had such a bad reaction to it that I wanted to throw the book across the room. My initial gut reaction was tempered (slightly) by the discussion that followed in the comments and that continued on Twitter and I came to see that perhaps I had missed the subtleties of the book, which was based on a true story. (I hadn’t known that at the time I read it.)

Adèle, her follow-up, has just been published in the UK, but it’s actually her first novel (published in France in 2014) and has simply been translated out of order.

Going on my past experience with her work, I picked it up with trepidation, telling myself that if I wasn’t hooked within the first 50 pages, I would abandon it. I ended up reading the entire book in two sittings.

North American cover

Extra-marital encounters

On the face of it, the book deals with another ugly subject: a married woman — the Adèle of the title — who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places. But it is so much more than this.

It is a deeply provocative look at modern life and privilege, of having it all but of never being quite satisfied, of one particular woman’s struggle to seek forbidden physical encounters to make her feel alive and to fill up the emptiness within her inner-most self. It is also an extraordinary examination of self-deception and self-destruction.

That Adèle has a successful career (as a journalist), a young son and a rich husband (who is a surgeon), and that she lives in a comfortable middle-class area of Paris in a beautiful apartment, makes one wonder what exactly is missing from her life.

But look a little closer. Adèle is clearly bored and doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, but I think the real nub of it lies in her decision to marry the first man who asks her, choosing comfort and financial security over love, a fact she willingly admits to her best friend. And because she doesn’t have that true bond with her husband it makes it easier for her to betray him. It also makes it easier for her to compartmentalise her sexual encounters as being purely physical events and not emotional ones.

Adèle is neither proud nor ashamed of her conquests. She keeps no records, recollects no names, no situations. She forgets everything very quickly, and that is a good thing. How could she remember so many different skins and smells? How could she recall the memory of the weight of each body on hers, the width of their hips, the size of their penis? She has no clear memories of them, and yet these men are the sole landmarks of her existence.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Adèle is not the often graphic descriptions of the one-night stands and extra-marital affairs (be warned, this book isn’t for the prudish or even the squeamish), but of her lack of interest in food. Adèle never eats. She’s painfully thin. That no one ever seems to notice this is worrying.

Simple plot, clear writing

Of course, I realise I’ve written 500 words and not really outlined the plot, but it’s a simple one, and you can probably guess how it pans out given it’s about a woman who strays outside of her marriage: her husband discovers her secret life. What you won’t expect is how he deals with it, and how their relationship morphs into something else entirely, and the effect that has on both of them, making Adèle an intriguing portrait of a marriage before and after the outfall of its potential destruction.

The prose is also sharp and clear (it was translated from the French by Sam Taylor) using short but vivid sentences — “Paris is orange and deserted” — where not a word seems to be wasted. And the pacing is quick-fire and suspenseful.

This is a compulsively readable book; unnerving, disturbing, daring and erotic. But it’s also a psychologically rich novel, full of insights about the human condition, the quest to feel alive and loved, and the struggle to lead a happy life when so much around us — whether that be our family, our friends, our job — compete for our time and energy.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, Leïla Slimani, Publisher, Setting

‘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!