France’s deadly literary sensation
This shocking novel centres on a nanny who kills her charges, writes David Mills.
In France, Leila Slimani is quite something. With Lullaby, only her second novel, the 36-year-old former journalist won the Prix Goncourt, the country’s top literary award. It has already sold more than 600,000 since it was published there in September 2016.
Lullaby is about a young, multicultural Parisian couple, Myriam, a brilliant French-Moroccan lawyer, and her husband Paul, who works in the music industry. Myriam is desperate to get back to her career after the birth of their second child, and the demure, middle-aged nanny Louise seems to be the answer to her prayers. However, we know where all this is going from the opening sentences: ‘‘The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.’’ The nanny batters both children to death and then attempts to kill herself.
Slimani has taken a middle-class concern, the difficulties of the justabout-managing wanting to get back to work after children, and shoehorned it into a psycho-thriller from the genre of female guilty paranoia. We are in the realm of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female.
So, is Lullaby anything more than journalistic opportunism? The answer is yes, because Slimani makes Myriam such an unsympathetic character. Her complexity is the best element of the novel. Myriam does not want to believe ‘‘that her children could be an impediment to her success’’.
It is clear that she is bored by the children and excited by her legal career. Her ‘‘secret shame’’ is that she fears becoming the kind of woman who has ‘‘nothing to talk about but the antics of the children’’.
There is a fearless honesty in presenting a mother who knows there is more to life than her offspring. She can appreciate the lovely worth of the banalities of child-rearing, but she would still prefer to skip her daughter’s birthday party if she can.
Slimani knows when to soft-pedal, too. Myriam’s North African origins are barely mentioned but are subtly resonant, as is the nice point that her work as a lawyer is so much more socially worthwhile than her husband’s job in pop music, yet there is never any question that he might give that up to look after the children.
Louise, the nanny, is no obvious monster either. She is well fleshed-out, presented in testimony from friends, neighbours and her daughter as if Slimani, the journalist, had interviewed them for a news feature.
Knowing how it’s all going to end increases the tension by making us more alert to the multiplying clues of odd behaviour that the young couple blithely ignore. Slimani horribly illuminates the darkest fears of a great many parents of small children anxiously trying to get on with their lives. – The Sunday Times