What We're Reading: Lullaby, By Leïla Slimani

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Leïla Slimani, a French-Moroccan writer, is practically unheard of in the UK, though I would say with confidence that this won't be the case for long. Her novel Lullaby, entitled “Chanson douce” in the original French, is the first of her works to be translated into English, having become an instant bestseller in France. She subsequently won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, becoming the first Moroccan woman to do so. She was also appointed as Francophone Affairs Minister by Emmanuel Macron to promote French arts and culture in 2017. Her impressive career is no doubt yet to reach its peak. 

Dubbed ‘the French “Gone Girl”’, this psychological thriller tells the story of a killer nanny who becomes obsessed with cementing herself in her employers’ perfect bourgeois family, lacking any fulfilment in her own personal life. She proves herself to be the perfect employee — adored by the children, works late without complaint, and keeps their house spotless. The family and the nanny become equally dependent on one another, and it seems as if nothing could possibly go wrong. However, the nanny’s obsession becomes increasingly worrying throughout. 

“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds” is perhaps the most chilling first line of a novel I've ever read, lingering in my head as I delved further into the novel. If you were to remove the first paragraph, to begin with you could believe you were reading the setup for almost any idyllic Parisian novel.Yet, it is the ability to make you feel like this that makes Slimani’s writing so convincing and gripping. She keeps the reader on tenterhooks, curious to discover the cracks in the seemingly flawless middle-class household and intrigued to find out just how the disaster unfolds. At the same time, her charming descriptions of a Parisian city lifestyle easily draw in any reader, especially a Francophile like myself, and I began dreaming I was part of their perfect middle class lives — before all the perfection unwinds, one can treat the novel as a form of escapism.

Another thing which makes this novel so refreshing is its nuanced discussions of race and class, demonstrating to us how whilst these boundaries become blurred, the differences remain just as relevant. Louise’s rented flat is in stark contrast to the family’s expensive townhouse apartment, and her only social interactions are with the other nannies she meets in the park. Slimani also writes of mothers who are concerned about only employing nannies from specific countries, and who worry that their children will grow up speaking Arabic and not French. We also read deeply into the concerns of motherhood — should a mother leave her children with a nanny to work? How much time should be devoted to one’s children? It is evident that the author herself has lived through these concerns, and I think this experience makes the novel all the more believable, and therefore haunting. Slimani also ensures that her novel contains characters who aren't simply there to be a token ethnic minority, but who have interesting and well developed back stories, such as Louise’s only friend Wafa. To read such a diverse novel is always a privilege, in a literary world which is often dominated by the classics written by old white men. The discussion of issues such as immigration and employment intersecting with race, class and family are especially pertinent in today's turbulent society. 

Lullaby was a novel that kept me gripped, and one of those books that left me wanting more - not because it was lacking anything, but because I didn't want it to end. I have no doubt that Slimani’s works will become as well regarded in the UK as they have been in France, and her success will be well deserved. 

Anna WardComment