Lullaby by Leïla Slimani – digested read

The Guardian
By John Crace

The baby is dead. The little girl soon will be too. There is screaming from upstairs. It is the mother who has come home early. A neighbour talks to the police. “It was the nanny who killed them,” she says. In the bathroom upstairs, the nanny has slashed her neck with a knife. She is unconscious. No one knows if she will die too.


Paul and Myriam are the perfect couple with the perfect flat in Paris. Paul is a successful music producer. Myriam stays at home to look after their children, Mila and Adam. But they are not happy. Paul wonders if it is because they are always described in clipped sentences. Sentences that make them curiously unformed and unsympathetic as characters. Myriam insists it is because she is a bit bored. She wants to go back to work. She misses being a lawyer.


“We mustn’t have an illegal immigrant,” Myriam says. They have decided to hire a nanny. They interview a lot of nannies whom they don’t really like. Then Louise walks through the door. She is blonde, petite and looks younger than her 40 years. She seems to be the perfect nanny. Myriam says they must take up a reference from her former employers, the Rouviers. Mme Rouvier says Louise was the perfect nanny.


Paul and Myriam are ecstatic. Louise arrives for work every morning at six o’clock. First she helps Paul and Myriam to get dressed. Then she makes them breakfast. Once Paul and Myriam have left the house, Louise attends to the children. She caters for their every need. When they are having a nap, Louise does all the cleaning. She enjoys polishing the toilet and ironing Myriam’s lingerie. Louise also happily stays late and never asks for any extra money. For reasons best known to themselves they think all this is perfectly normal.


It is time to break the irritation of the present tense by writing in the past. Sometimes Louise wondered what had happened to her daughter. Stephanie had always been a fat, difficult child whom no one had liked. Stephanie had run away from home five years ago, when she was 15. Sometimes Louise thought she ought to try and find out what had happened to her, but mostly she couldn’t be bothered. She hadn’t much loved her husband either. Jacques was a bully and it had taken her several months to realise he had died.


Paul and Myriam are still ecstatic. Louise is now working from four in the morning till two o’clock at night and the children adore her. They take her on holiday to Greece with them where they hope that Louise does not think they are being too patronising towards her because she has little money. The moment they get home, Louise unpacks Paul and Myriam’s cases and does all their washing. Then she takes the children to the park to let the parents sleep. In the park Louise doesn’t make friends with other nannies because she thinks they are a bit rubbish.


It isn’t until more than half way through the book that Paul and Myriam start to find Louise’s behaviour slightly disturbing. The children both have bite marks on them and a chicken carcass has been left on the kitchen table. They discuss whether they should sack her but then decide against it. After all, it’s not as if Louise is doing anything important like looking after their children. “We’re just typical guilt-ridden middle-class parents,” they laugh to themselves.


The action moved back to the past to fill in a bit more of the backstory. While working for Paul and Myriam, Louise had met another nanny. Wafa introduced her to a short bloke called Herve with whom she had unsatisfactory sex. Then her landlord came round to throw her out and asked why the shower had collapsed. Louise had no idea. Nor did the reader. Louise was still as much of a blank to them as she was to everyone else.


One morning, Myriam is distraught that Louise hasn’t turned up for work. Has she gone missing? No, she is just in bed suffering from delirium melancholia. No one thinks to ask what that is. Not even Louise. She goes back to work and starts doing some more obsessive cleaning. Paul thinks this is a little odd, but not enough to mention. He is cross, though, that she hasn’t been paying her tax and ticks her off. Louise is relieved. She thought Paul was going to complain about her having moved in to their flat and dressed up in Myriam’s clothes while they were away in the country.


Louise decides that what will make everyone happy is for Paul and Myriam to have another baby. She starts working even harder and takes Mila and Adam out for the evening so Paul and Myriam can have sex. She is furious when she gets back to the flat to discover Myriam went straight to bed and Paul stayed up watching box sets of Spiral.


The next day the children are dead and Louise is in a coma. The police woman in charge of the investigation interviews everyone with whom Louise came in contact and is still none the wiser as to why she killed the children. Nor am I. Perhaps a couple of the final chapters went missing. Or maybe it’s just one of those things.

Leila Slimani