Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Translated by Sam Taylor

Reviewed by Harriet

Moroccan born novelist Leïla Slimani is not the first woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, though she’s only the 13th woman to do so since the prize was established in 1903. Her novel, Chanson Douce, now translated as Lullaby, is however the first in the thriller genre to win the prize (which is worth all of 10 euros, but more or less guarantees that the winner will sell enough books to become a millionaire). The qualification is for the winner to have produced ‘the best and most imaginative prose work of the year’, and the French have notoriously high standards where literary work is concerned. So I think Faber has managed quite a coup here in publishing the English translation.

The novel starts with a huge shock – the immediate aftermath of a terrible, apparently senseless murder of two small children by their seemingly devoted nanny. So the first short chapter is painful reading. After this, the story rewinds to the beginning, in which we learn the history of the incident, right from the beginning when the children’s parents, Myriam and Paul, start their search for someone to take care of their beloved Mira and Adam while they are at work. Several unsuccessful interviews later, they can’t believe their luck when they happen on Louise, who really does seem like the perfect choice:

When she describes that first interview, Myriam loves to say that it was instantly obvious. Like love at first sight….Paul and Myriam are charmed by Louise, by her smooth features, her open smile, her lips that do not tremble. She looks like a woman able to understand everything and forgive everything. Her face is like the peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.

That last sentence might just pass you by on a first reading, but pay attention. Indeed, from the beginning everything seems to go incredibly smoothly. Louise far exceeds her brief – she not only looks after the children beautifully, so that they soon come to adore her, but she also takes care of the apartment, does the housework and the shopping, cooks meals for the couple when they get home from work. She quickly comes to seem like one of the family, and when it’s time for a holiday in Greece, there’s no question of leaving her behind. Everything seems perfect.

However, interspersed between the chapters describing the idyllic life in the Paris apartment, there are others which give a perspective on the other side of Louise’s life. We learn of her early struggles to make a living for herself and to support her difficult, unattractive only daughter, who is now grown up and out of touch. We see the dreadful flat she lives in, shockingly expensive despite being in a poor part of town, and meet her horrible landlord. For a long time Louise manages to keep the two different compartments of her existence completely separate, but as time goes on, her employers start to doubt her. Louise, not invited on the second summer holiday, spends a week in the flat, pretending she lives there. Paul has to confront her about some unpaid tax, and coolness develops. Louise gets ill, and her landlord threatens her with eviction. Rather rapidly, the fairy-tale picture that she has managed to construct about her ideal life crumbles, and she’s facing some harsh realities.

Is this enough to excuse what happens? Clearly not. But what we see throughout this novel is a woman stretched to breaking point, her perfection as a surrogate mother to Mila and Adam a fragile mask covering a troubled psyche. And then there’s a secondary, though related, theme running throughout the story: the issues that arise from a woman’s decision to return to work after having a family, and the subsequent silent, unacknowledged struggle between the mother and the full-time carer. Here, there’s no question that Myriam loves her children, but she’s tempted back to her successful career as a lawyer and this also provides her with tremendous fulfilment. Every working mother will recognise the guilt she experiences when she’s able, every day, to hand the children over to someone so obviously competent and loving. And yet, underneath the gratitude and relief, surely there must be some jealousy when the mother sees the devotion of her children to their nanny. It’s all these undercurrents that Slimani captures so brilliantly.

I often have quibbles about the quality of translations, especially those from French into English. But no such problem arises here – Sam Taylor has produced something that reads with total seamlessness. The writing has all the pared down elegance that the French seem to do so well. Yes, it’s a difficult subject and a painful one, though I think Slimani’s decision to throw the reader in at the deep end by beginning with the dreadful ending to the story was an excellent one – the shock never completely fades, but curiosity takes over as the narrative explores what led up to the denouement. This is fine and engrossing writing.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Leila Slimani, Lullaby, trans. Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber, 2018). 978-0571337545, 240pp., paperback original.

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