Adèle by Leïla Slimani

Translated by Sam Taylor

Reviewed by Annabel

Slimani’s first novel to be translated into English, Lullaby, took the English-speaking publishing world by storm. It was a literary thriller telling the story of a murderous nanny and what made her that way, (reviewed by Harriet here). It was the must-read book at the time, an instant bestseller. Now Sam Taylor has translated her prior novel, her first, Adèle, published in French as Dans le jardin de l’ogre back in 2014.

Adèle is rather different in subject matter to Lullaby, but is written in the same style, in the present tense, with short sentences. The opening lines are intriguing:

Adèle has been good. She has held out for a week now. She hasn’t given in. She has run twenty miles in the past four days. … She hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol and she has gone to bed early.

But tonight she dreamed about it and she couldn’t fall back asleep. A torrid dream that went on forever, that entered her like a breath of hot wind. Now Adèle can think of nothing else.

If you’ve not already read the blurb, by the time you get to the bottom of the first page you’ll have a sense of the protagonist’s sense of mind. Adèle is addicted to rough sex, often with strangers. But, she is also married with a young son. At this stage her husband has no idea. It is so easy to be shocked, as I was, upon reading about Adèle’s experiences – Slimani’s descriptions of her encounters are graphic, not glamorised but undeniably erotic in places, downright dangerous and nasty in others! However, there is more to it than a simple case of sex addiction, although that will be the initial reaction of many readers.

If pushed to describe it, I’d pitch this book as a French Fleabag, which then goes off in a different direction. Although Slimani is unlikely have encountered BBC3’s sublime but challenging comedy Fleabag, which only aired some years after she wrote this novel, the story in the first series of a woman seeking gratuitous sex as an answer to her grief of the death of her best friend has depth that goes beyond the obvious – as does Adèle. There are also elements of Madame Bovary, such as the protagonist living beyond her means and of course her boredom with the banal. Later, add in the consequences of a husband spurned once he finds out, and the outcome of his cuckolding, take the plot in another direction leading to some powerful drama.

There are layers of complexity to Adèle’s character and situation. As in Lullaby, the family unit which Adèle is part of is middle-class, not overly cash-strapped. Adèle has her own job as a journalist, but having been full of enthusiasm for it, as she gets to ‘know’ the other staff, she loses her respect for the company she keeps there. Adèle is not overtly maternal towards her child either; both she and Richard are keen to get away from home leaving their son with a baby sitter. They’ll go out for a meal and Adèle will only pick at her food; she has no appetite and is getting worryingly thin. It becomes clear that she didn’t really marry Richard for love, he was the first to ask and at that time she wanted to tick marriage and motherhood off her list, without realising why she was doing it – so why she does what she does is understandable in a way.

Adèle is not a novel for the prudish; like Lullaby it is profoundly disturbing and short enough to be devoured in a single sitting. I can’t say I actively ‘enjoyed’ reading this book, instead I felt compelled to keep reading – make of that what you will!

Annabel is one of the Shiny editors, and a Fleabag fan (series 2 is even better!)

Leïla Slimani, Adèle (Faber, 2019). 9780571331956, 224 pp., paperback original.

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