Adèle by Leïla Slimani review – a tough read, but a bracing one

The Guardian
By Alex Clark

A doctor’s wife is hooked on sex with strangers in this elegant, enigmatic follow-up to Lullaby.

Adèle is addicted to sex, with more or less any man who isn’t her husband and whom she doesn’t know too well: as soon as any hint of intimacy or routine announces itself in her liaisons, she cuts them off. Although she is easily frightened by groups of drunken men on the streets, she seeks out dangerous situations in which she has the illusion of control – on press trips she makes as a lacklustre, uninterested journalist, with guys she hires to bring drugs to her apartment, in the seedy surroundings of a sex shop in the Boulevard de Clichy. Occasionally, she will demand to be physically hurt, as when she asks the drug dealers to smash her genitals, leaving her vagina “just a shard of broken glass now, a maze of ridges and fissures”.

Slimani’s slender, elegantly written and translated novel is filled with such disturbing images, and her capacity to shock will come as little surprise to readers of her previous novel, Lullaby (though Adèle is actually her debut novel and was published before Lullaby in France), which opened by revealing the brutal aftermath of the murder of two small children. And in that novel, too, she took us into the painful, tumbled vortex of female subjectivity, with its complex trade-offs between obligation and appetite, its desire for liberation tussling with the question of what that liberation might yield.

But Adèle is an altogether more obdurate character than Lullaby’s harassed mother or thwarted nanny, resisting interpretation and repelling empathy at every turn. She appears to care for little but satisfying the hunger and compulsions that she barely understands; not her son, not her gastroenterologist husband, not her colleagues nor friends. By way of complicating the scenario, Slimani sketches a variety of possibilities as to the cause of her behaviour: a childhood trip to Paris with her mother, who abandoned her in a hotel room while meeting a man who wasn’t her husband; the uncaring teenage boyfriend with whom she lost her virginity in a damp garage, after which she felt “simultaneously dirty and proud, humiliated and victorious”; the fug and claustrophobia of the provincial family flat in which she grew up.

That Adèle’s husband is a doctor is suggestive of the world of Madame Bovary, with which the novel appears to be in dialogue. Unlike Emma, Adèle does not covet romantic fulfilment – the reverse – but she is similarly driven by restlessness and a rejection of the snares of bourgeois propriety; and similarly doomed by the absence of a space for her in the social structure (on which note, there is also an allusion to Anna Karenina’s suicide). As in both of those books, there is a comeuppance, a reckoning that implies the lack of value accorded to female lives and sexuality, and the irrepressible urge to control them.

The wider world hovers at the edges: Adèle’s brief enthusiasm for her work leads to an immersion in the revolutions of north Africa, before journalism too becomes part of “the whole idiotic charade”; towards the end of the novel comes a reference to her Algerian father’s sense of dislocation from his roots and her mother’s indifference to it.

But there is nothing that might add up to a thesis; explicit in so many ways, Slimani’s writing, here and in Lullaby, is coy about any greater ambitions it might have. Instead, it reads as if more interested in exploring the possibilities of extremes and reclaiming their potential as literary devices beyond that of mere shock-creation. What is the very worst thing that can happen when you ask someone to look after your children? What if you immured yourself in an utterly respectable life and then tried to fuck your way out of it?

Adèle is a tough read, but a bracing one; little concerned with reader-pleasing narrative treats, but provocatively enigmatic. Appearing to adopt the conventions of realism – despite being sparely written, it is filled with physical detail, from an encounter in a freezing back alley to the “immense black-and-white photograph of derelict Cuban theatre” that decorates a fancy Parisian apartment – it eventually becomes increasingly dream-like, the compulsions of its characters (and not merely Adèle) revealed as the manifestation of suppressed desires and dysfunction. And it is not a dream from which it seems immediately possible to waken.

Leila Slimani
Fiction
Adele