Leïla Slimani’s novel about a killer nanny was a hit in France, and has just been published in Britain and America
Why do I need to know about this book?
“The Perfect Nanny” (its American title) or “Lullaby” (its British title) is one of the most hyped books of 2018. Based on a real-life case of a nanny who killed the children she was looking after, it’s billed as a literary thriller with a layer of social commentary – the kind of book that publishers and journalists get really excited about. The dustjacket features a quotation from a British newspaper calling it the “next ‘Gone Girl’”, a reference to the novel by Gillian Flynn that sold 15 million copies and was turned into a Hollwood movie. It was originally published a couple of years ago in France (as “Chanson douce”, which means lullaby), where it won the Prix Goncourt, a very prestigious book prize.
I’ve never heard of Leïla Slimani. Who is she?
The other reason that publishers and journalists are wild about this book is because its author is super bright, exceedingly glamorous and apparently not afraid of publicity. She was born to a well-off family in Morocco in 1981, and moved to Paris to go to university when she was 17. She worked as an actress, then as a journalist, covering Morocco and Tunisia for a weekly magazine. She had a baby with her husband Antoine, a banker, and stuck with the job for a while, but after being arrested while reporting in Tunisia she quit and decided to focus on writing novels.
“Chanson douce”, her second published novel, achieved that rare feat of being adored by the public as much as the critics. Winning the Goncourt turned her into a celebrity in France and Morocco. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who has a nose for PR, hired her to be his (unpaid) Francophone affairs minister to promote French language and culture “to a multicultural world”.
Despite being “born a Muslim” and growing up in a Muslim country, Slimani is stridently secular, in the Frenchest way possible. At the time of writing, she is trending on Twitter for having written a column in Libération, a French newspaper, defending her right to walk down the street in a miniskirt with her cleavage on show and not feel afraid, and contrasting that to women who “hide” themselves in long black veils. As a recent New Yorker profile of Slimani mentioned, her forthrightness has made some people uneasy. It quoted Francois Soudan, a liberal journalist, who said, “to be bankable in the media right now on the Left Bank of the Seine, the good Arab is obliged to be secular, Islamophobic, preferably libertine, and, if possible, under threat (for the preceding) in his country of origin.” Slimani, for her part, insists that “you have to defend your ideas – you can’t always cede the floor to others.”
Give me a brief idea of the plot.
We learn in the first few sentences that a nanny has killed two children. The rest of the book is about the lead-up to this horrific event.
Myriam and Paul are an upper-middle-class couple living in a posh part of Paris, who are squeezed into a small apartment with their two children. Myriam is bored with being a stay-at-home mum and decides to resume her career as a criminal lawyer. Paul works in the music business. They get a nanny – Louise – who seems perfect, but then starts to do increasingly weird things, like putting make-up on their daughter, or fishing a chicken carcass out of the bin and encouraging the children to pick at it.
The book is told in the third person from multiple view points, and we see what Myriam and Paul can’t – that Louise’s mental health is disintegrating and that she is living at the mercy of a slum landlord. Flashbacks tell us more about Louise’s tough life, which includes an abusive husband and a dysfunctional daughter, who she wasn’t able to look after properly because she was spending so much time bringing up other people’s kids.
There are also, through Louise’s friend Wafa, enlightening excursions into the world of Paris’s immigrant nannies.
There’s something about the killer-nanny set-up that sounds familiar.
Slimani has said she was inspired by a news story about the murders of Leo and Lucia Krim, a two- and six-year-old from New York who were stabbed to death in 2012. The children’s nanny was charged with the murders, but is yet to stand trial. “Lullaby” shares not-very-subtle similarities with the case – right down to the children’s mother walking in on the bloody crime scene. Not content to borrow from one news story, Slimani told the New Yorker that she named her killer nanny Louise after Louise Woodward, the British au pair who was accused of shaking a baby to death in 1997. Given that Woodward was convicted of involuntary manslaughter rather than murder, Slimani is sailing close to the wind here.
What’s her style of writing like?
“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer.” “Lullaby”’s opening will give you a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. The reader is propelled through the book by its short, matter-of-fact sentences, pausing only to admire an astute observation or a lyrical turn of phrase (or, occasionally, to despair at an excess of similes). Slimani has been slightly let down by her editors – there are infelicities in the translation that should have been picked up by a copy editor (for instance, Paul and Myriam’s daughter learns to tidy up “behind herself” instead of “after herself”). The dialogue is a little tin-eared, but then it is in so much translated fiction.
However, this is the kind of book where the prose is secondary to its ideas.
What sorts of themes does the novel explore?
Where to start! This book has it all. Top of the bill is the timeless “career v motherhood” conundrum (it is refreshing to see a mother who loves her job as much as her children, even though she does get punished for it in the end – more on that later). Men are not shown in a good light: the middle-class father doesn’t want his wife to go back to work and implies her concerns about the nanny are hysterical; the working-class father (Louise’s husband) is a feckless, abusive alcoholic. Slimani has fun skewering the pretensions, hypocrisy and casual racism of “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian) Parisians. When middle-class parents socialise together, “they talk about their jobs, about terrorism and property prices.” They make excuses for why they’re sending their children to private school instead of the local state school: “It’s a sad thing to say, but Odin would have been the only white kid in his class...I don’t think I’d handle it well if he came back to the house talking about God and speaking Arabic.”
Has it been well reviewed?
Mostly, yes. The reviewer for the Guardian called it a “political novel about emotional work”, while the Financial Times’s critic noted that “in its anarchism and episodic hysteria it is redolent of Zola’s ‘Thérèse Raquin’, or Genet’s ‘The Maids’”. One dissenting voice was Maureen Corrigan, from the Washington Post, who wrote:
“Poetic phrases...abound throughout the novel and elevate it well above its formulaic premise, one that has inspired many a Lifetime television movie. But, the irony is that for all its fine language, the takeaway of ‘The Perfect Nanny’ is pretty much the same as the feminist backlash message of those movies, as well as that of 1992 cinematic cultural touchstone, ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’. Namely, there is no ‘perfect nanny’; indeed, the nanny who’s tending to your children may well be a psycho. Is any career worth that risk, ladies?”
Any other talking points I need to know about?
Slimani has been accused of “cashing in” on the murders of the Krim children. How soon is too soon to write a novel based on a real-life tragedy? Sure, novelists have always pilfered news stories (Thomas Hardy being the most famous example), but basing your plot on a notorious recent murder case risks upsetting the family and limiting the freedom of the novelist (you can’t be too snide about the parents). There’s also the somewhat dodgy matter of the case not having gone to trial yet.
Another question sure to excite book groups is whether “Lullaby”/ “The Perfect Nanny” really is the next “Gone Girl”. Seeing as “Gone Girl” was all about the tight plotting and unexpected twists, while Slimani’s book starts with the “ending” before subtly probing a woman’s descent into psychosis, the publishers could be setting themselves up for a fall. Several reviewers on GoodReads and Amazon write about feeling short-changed by its “slow pace” and “unsatisfying” ending, although one Amazon customer wrote: “To be nothing like ‘Gone Girl’ is not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned – one of the most overrated, and bloated novels of that year.”
Lullaby/The Perfect Nanny is out now, published by Faber (UK) and Penguin (US)