Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor
Published 11th January 2018 by Faber & Faber // Purchased // ☆☆☆☆
The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.
When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite and devoted woman who sings to their children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint and is able to host enviable birthday parties.
The couple and nanny become more dependent on each other. But as jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase, Myriam and Paul’s idyllic tableau is shattered…
Eerie, tense and extremely powerful, this short literary fiction certainly manages to pack a punch despite its limited page count. I’ve been wanting to read this extremely popular French novel ever since it popped up on my Goodreads feed, and in the weeks and months that followed I continued to hear nothing but endless praise for it. Having finally obtained a copy, I sped through Lullaby in just a few sittings, pausing at times due to the overwhelming feelings of tension and claustrophobia build so skilfully into the prose. Unlike any other crime or mystery novel I’ve ever read, Slimani builds atmosphere fantastically well, without having to rely on overtly gruesome scenes or shock tactics to thrill. The sense of unease the reader feels builds gradually, as we search to discover what drives our seemingly perfect main character to such drastic lengths.
It is no spoiler to say that Lullaby is a murder story; we know from page one that both of these very young children will be killed by their nanny. The precise details are seeped out slowly, drawn out with chilling slowness as we return to the beginning and are introduced to Parisian couple Myriam and Paul and nanny Louise, the eerily ageless, doll-like widow who seems like the answer to their childcare prayers. Louise quickly makes herself indispensable to the family, doing everything from childcare to housework, cooking to party planning, and soon this modern-day Mary Poppins is a near-permanent fixture within the Parisian apartment. They simply cannot do without her.
Following the sharp jolt in the opening pages where we learn of the aftermath, the story that follows leading up to that point is cleverly and effectively pieced together. While life with Louise seems wonderful at first, some of the scenes are so distressing to read that you do so with an intense feeling of fear and dread, wanting to jump into the book to stop the inevitable climax. In an early scene, Louise plays hide-and-seek with the children, and, while successfully hidden, watches the children’s anguish and panic when they cannot find her, like a hunter watching its prey. In another, and perhaps even more sinister, episode, the nanny retrieves as old chicken carcass thrown out by Myriam and teaches the children how to tear off the dry meat with their fingers while letting them drink “big glasses of Fanta as they ate, so they wouldn’t choke”. In a series of flashbacks, Louise’s brutal, sometimes mentally unhinged past comes slowly to light, building the tension higher and higher until it is difficult to carry on reading.
Not only a fantastically written literary thriller, Lullaby also paints a fascinating portrait of social and economic destress and deprivation, as well as providing an interesting commentary on the role of motherhood and what it means to be a working mother. Emotionally draining but immensely worthwhile, it is a unsettling, character-driver tale of tragedy, and while the ending doesn’t exactly tie up all of the loose threads – there’s a little work for you, as the reader – it will certainly leave you with a lot to think about. The ever-building tension and the smart plotting and pacing are the foundations on which this thriller is so cleverly built, and the result is an extremely strong piece of fiction that deserves to be read by all.