Book review: Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

Lullaby by Lela Slimani
Lullaby by Lela Slimani
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What could drive a nanny to slaughter the two young children in her care?

You might want to steel yourself before reading this shocking, haunting and utterly riveting novel but – to use a well-worn cliché – there’s no gain without pain.

A runaway bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, Lullaby – translated by Sam Taylor – is the second novel from French-Moroccan journalist Leïla Slimani who has so impressed the French President Emmanuel Macron that he has given her the job of promoting the French language and its culture.

More of a ‘whydunit’ than a whodunit, this powerful, perfectly controlled story explodes into life from its disturbing opening lines… ‘The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.’

From an exquisitely macabre scene depicting the grim and grisly aftermath of murder, Lullaby swings us mercilessly back in time to discover how a seemingly perfect ‘Mary Poppins’ nanny came to brutally murder a middle class couple’s little girl and toddler son in their smart Parisian apartment.

And this is indeed a brave and resonant piece of literary fiction as Slimani relentlessly explores the dark recesses of Parisian society, and the ethical conundrums of contemporary living, tackling issues of power, class, race, guilt and motherhood with her rapier sharp eye.

When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, becomes bored with domesticity and decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband Paul look for the perfect nanny for their two young children – spoilt, wild child Mila and baby Adam.

They never dreamed they would find Louise, a quiet, polite and devoted woman in her forties who sings to their children, cleans the family’s chic apartment, mends their clothes, stays late without complaint and even hosts lavish birthday parties.

Louise is Myriam’s ‘miracle worker’ and Paul’s ‘Mary Poppins’ but their slender, delicate-looking nanny has another life away from Paris’s upmarket tenth arrondissement… a cramped studio apartment in a shabbier, dirtier side of the city where Louise wants ‘to clean the panes until they shatter.’

The couple and nanny are becoming more and more dependent on each other, and now Louise has her own keys to the apartment, a place ‘completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness.’

What Myriam and Paul don’t see is nanny telling the children cruel tales of heroes who die and games of hide and seek in which Louise refuses to reveal where she is hiding and watches the scared, panicking children ‘as if she’s studying the death throes of a fish she’s just caught.’

As jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase, Myriam and Paul's idyllic tableau is about to be shattered in the most devastating manner imaginable…

Slimani ratchets up the tension in this extraordinary psychological thriller as we seize on increasingly chilling snapshots of Louise’s bizarre and cruel behaviour, each episode nestling uncomfortably amongst the mundane realities of everyday domestic life in a busy, pressurised working household.

As Myriam becomes more and more reliant on her nanny, the social gap between the two women seems to open ever wider. Hidden resentments bubble close to the surface, the nanny’s indispensability stirs up the working mother’s feelings of guilt, and Louise is cast dangerously adrift between a dull, isolated existence in her soulless flat and the extravagant, throwaway luxury of Paul and Myriam’s lifestyle.

Slimani fleshes out each of her characters with breathtaking detail as we hurtle towards what we know is the inevitable bloodbath. Their innermost workings have been laid bare, Louise’s ‘rotting soul’ has been terrifyingly exposed, and the emotional shock of the massacre lingers on long after the last page has turned.

Intelligent, subtle, unsettling and gripping, Lullaby is a French masterpiece… but it certainly won’t sing you to sleep.

(Faber, paperback, £12.99)