In New York in 2012, in a case that cast a chill over wealthy Manhattan, a young brother and sister were stabbed to death at their home on the Upper West Side. The alleged perpetrator was the nanny, found by their mother lying next to her charges, having superficially wounded herself in the wrists and neck. The accused was said at the time of the murders to have been experiencing financial problems and to be “angry” with her employers for “making” her undertake housework in addition to childcare. Her employers’ family’s stunned disbelief was quoted in numerous news stories: the nanny was treated “as one of their own . . .”; “they bent over backwards” to help and accommodate her.
The French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s novel Lullaby, in part written in response to this shamefully gripping tragedy, combines bestselling thriller (it has been relentlessly touted as the French Gone Girl) with literary kudos, having won France’s most prestigious book award, the Prix Goncourt. Its multiple appeal is clear from the first page: Slimani’s style, enhanced by Sam Taylor’s graceful, unobtrusive translation, is calm, matter-of-fact and controlled, with only a hint of the deranged unravelling to come. And while the novel parades itself as a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit or a howdunnit, it is primarily a cool, dispassionate, and thoroughly uncomfortable look at class, culture and gender, particularly the eternally knotty subject of motherhood: its loaded, sometimes leaden obligations and intense dichotomies. Of writing Lullaby, Slimani has stated: “I think maternal instinct is a male construct that has been used for centuries to keep women in their place, at home.”
The book opens on an unapologetically traumatic scene. “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. She’d fought like a wild animal.” Their seemingly devoted nanny has violently killed the two small children in her care, then attempted suicide. However, “She didn’t know how to die. She only knew how to give death.”
She, too, will be taken away by ambulance, along with the mother who has collapsed on coming upon this disaster: home early from work, guiltily anxious to spend more time with the children she has entrusted to another’s paid attention. Her last moments of tranquillity are ruthlessly itemised: “During the short walk from the Metro station, she stopped at a baker’s. She bought a baguette, a dessert for the little ones and an orange cake for the nanny. Her favourite.” The awful spectacle that awaits is summed up in a line of devastation, like a crisp stage direction from an ancient tragedy: “Night fell on this May day.”
It’s a mark of supreme confidence to start a novel with its most dramatic act. Boldly, Slimani develops an atmosphere of claustrophobia and rising tension in just over 200 pages. Myriam and Paul, a middle-class couple, live with their children Mila and Adam in a fashionable part of Paris’s 10th arrondissement. Paul is a gregarious, entrepreneurial music executive; Myriam has given up her burgeoning career as a lawyer to look after the children full time. At some point following Adam’s birth she decides she wants — urgently needs — to return to work. Paul, struggling in his business, is at first obstructive — he likes the serenity of the family unit — but then agrees.
In a short, sharp chapter typical of the novel, Myriam’s anxiety about her decision, the emotional and financial weight that only she appears to carry, her snobbery about not hiring a nanny from a North African background similar to her own, are gleaned in a few sentences. The nanny the couple chooses is Louise, girlish in appearance despite being over 40, reserved, meticulously dressed, who arrives with immaculate references and has an instant rapport with the children.
Louise effortlessly immerses herself in the family’s every want and need. The children behave angelically and the cramped apartment is transformed by her tireless cleaning and tidying. In the guise of domestic goddess, Louise excels at producing mouth-watering meals whereas — of course! — career-oriented Myriam cannot cook. Paul and Myriam blossom under this good fairy. They begin to achieve highly at work, absorbed in themselves as individuals once more, leaving Louise completely in control at home.
Slimani cleverly plays with the reader’s perception: we know already that Louise has committed a terrible act, yet Myriam and Paul are careless in their privilege. Louise, damaged by a desolate childhood which is tantalisingly hinted at, and a gradually revealed immediate past of debt and desertion, appears at once pitiful and gorgon-like, returning each night to an undesirable neighbourhood, obsessively scrubbing her pristine studio flat, with the sole exception of a putrid, slowly rotting shower cubicle — a rather obvious symbol of her increasing instability.
This repressed chaos is constantly at work in the book, scrabbling beneath the formal exterior. In its anarchism and episodic hysteria it is redolent of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, or Genet’s The Maids. In one disturbing incident towards the end of Lullaby, Myriam, in a ghastly foreshadowing, returns to the flat to find a blanched chicken carcass, picked clean, lovingly washed and rubbed with almond oil, ostentatiously displayed on the kitchen table. It is an implausible gesture that nevertheless appears to pose a direct threat. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Louise’s silent, furious battle isn’t ultimately with Paul and Myriam as a couple; it is with Myriam alone. Louise enables in order for the other woman to flourish, and it is Louise who remains the outsider, miracle-worker turned creature of vengeance, in Slimani’s triumphantly uncompromising examination of female anger and acquiescence.