The French Gone Girl

The ‘French Gone Girl’ is a tense and evoca­tive tale of a nanny’s de­scent into mur­der

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - SARAH GILMARTIN

Leila Sli­mani’s ‘Lul­laby’ re­viewed

LUL­LABY LEÏLA SLI­MANI Faber & Faber, 224pp, £12.99

‘A nd then time started to drag; the clock­like per­fec­tion of the fam­ily mech­a­nism be­came jammed.” Billed as the French Gone Girl, Leïla Sli­mani’s Lul­laby is not quite as sus­pense­ful but more than makes up for it with a su­pe­rior stan­dard of writ­ing. Her de­but novel, which saw her be­come the first Moroc­can wo­man to win France’s most pres­ti­gious literary prize, the Gon­court, is a taut, haunt­ing tale about a fam­ily’s night­mare ex­pe­ri­ence with a nanny. Not since The Hand that Rocks the Cra­dle has some­one show­cased so ef­fec­tively the power a nanny can have within a fam­ily, an in­flu­ence that starts out so pos­i­tively and ends in blood.

In her goth­ically ti­tled de­but, Sli­mani sets up the sus­pense by open­ing with a mur­der scene in a Parisian apart­ment in the 10th ar­rondis­e­ment. In­fant Adam, and pos­si­bly his tod­dler sis­ter Mila, have been bru­tally slaugh­tered by their nanny Louise. The re­sult­ing novel be­comes a why­dun­nit as Sli­mani ex­cels at delv­ing into the minds of her char­ac­ters with om­ni­scient flair.

Early chap­ters show har­ried mother Myr­iam, a lawyer of North African de­scent, strug­gle with de­pres­sion and the drudgery of look­ing af­ter two small chil­dren while long­ing to get back to her ca­reer: “She gave the baby a bath and thought to her­self that this hap­pi­ness – this sim­ple, silent, pris­on­like hap­pi­ness – was not enough to con­sole her.” At night, she watches her hus­band Paul “sleep­ing the deep, heavy sleep of some­one who has worked hard all day and de­serves a good rest”.

Myr­iam’s de­ci­sion to go back to work is treated sen­si­tively. The ful­fil­ment of win­ning cases and praise from her boss is con­trasted with the guilt Myr­iam feels at leav­ing her chil­dren. En­ter Louise, a well-man­nered wo­man who brings or­der to a chaotic house­hold, a frame­work that ini­tially al­lows the fam­ily to flour­ish. Sli­mani skil­fully por­trays the di­chotomies of the role, as Louise be­comes an in­te­gral part of the fam­ily yet in many re­spects is also their ser­vant. She does the jobs they no longer wish to do, gets em­broiled in their per­sonal af­fairs, and tries to nav­i­gate the dual role of “be­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­vis­i­ble and in­dis­pens­able”.

Flash­backs to Louise’s past show sim­i­lar prob­lems. When her es­tranged daugh­ter Stephanie was a child, she was warned by her mother to keep her dis­tance from her wards: “I know they said this was sort of our hol­i­day too, but if you have too much fun they’ll take it badly.” What is clear, through­out all her var­i­ous em­ploy­ers, is that the fam­i­lies ex­pect Louise to be there but also not to be there. Sphinx-like, she is, in Sli­mani’s words, and Sam Tay­lor’s ex­cel­lent trans­la­tion, “like those fig­ures at the back of a the­atre stage who move the sets around in the dark­ness”.

Ex­cru­ci­at­ing scenes where Louise is ex­tolled by Myr­iam and Paul and their din­ner party friends, or brought on her first ever trip abroad by the fam­ily, give way in­cre­men­tally to petty griev­ances. The nanny’s thrifti­ness be­comes tight­ness, her ubiq­uity a bur­den, her play­ful­ness with the chil­dren signs of a mind not en­tirely sta­ble. While the om­ni­scient nar­ra­tive is too busy at times, it suc­ceeds in giv­ing voice to the two women at the heart of this book. It is to Sli­mani’s credit that nei­ther are villains – at least not ini­tially. The fit­ting epi­graph from Dos­to­evsky’s Crime

and Pun­ish­ment – “Do you un­der­stand, dear sir, do you un­der­stand what it means when there is ab­so­lutely nowhere to go?” – sums up Louise’s mis­er­able sit­u­a­tion as a wo­man of no means who has clung on to life by help­ing im­prove the lives of oth­ers. Her de­scent into poverty, help­less­ness and ul­ti­mately ma­nia is en­tirely con­vinc­ing. As she “pa­tiently builds her nest” in the fam­ily’s home, read­ers can pre­dict what will hap­pen. In many ways, not least a hor­ri­fy­ing scene with a chicken car­cass, there is plenty in this novel to cre­ate sus­pense and the hook of the startling open­ing scene might have been bet­ter as a slow re­veal.

The re­ver­sal of the two women – Myr­iam’s im­mi­grant ori­gins and Louise, a white wo­man liv­ing in places that are only rented to peo­ple with darker skin – adds fur­ther depth to the novel, ex­plor­ing themes of race and gen­der. Other acer­bic so­cial ob­ser­va­tions fre­quently bring mo­ments of light­ness to the plot. Myr­iam’s friend gives her chil­dren “un­pro­nounce­able names, taken from Nordic mythol­ogy, whose mean­ings she en­joys ex­plain­ing”.

At the cen­tre of the book is the con­trast be­tween Louise’s func­tion – to give Myr­iam back her lost life – and the sad fact that the nanny’s own life has never been hers to con­trol. It puts Louise and her wards in an air­tight con­tainer, and when the lid fi­nally comes off, it’s ac­com­pa­nied by “the kind of scream heard dur­ing war, in the trenches, in other worlds, on other con­ti­nents”.

PHOTOGRAPH: JOEL SAGET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Leïla Sli­mani: “Not since The Hand that Rocks the Cra­dle has some­one show­cased so ef­fec­tively the power a nanny can have within a fam­ily.”

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