Lullaby by Leila Slimani
‘The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. She’d fought like a wild animal. They found signs of a struggle, bits of skin under her soft fingernails.’
When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband Paul look for a caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise, a quiet, polite and devoted woman who seems perfect in every way. But as the couple and nanny become more dependent on each other, jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani was first published in France, where it won the Prix Goncourt, one of the most important literary prizes in the country, and since its translation into English it has received a landslide of fantastic reviews. So is it worth the hype?
At just over 200 pages this short, intense thriller sure packs a punch. Slimani knows just how to build a powerful sense of dread and how to use small, seemingly insignificant actions to deeply unsettle the reader. It’s a powerful premise, exploring what happens when we invite strangers into our homes and give them absolute trust and confidence, and what happens when that trust is broken.
However, my problem with this book is that we know from the first sentence (and, indeed, from the quote on the front cover) what all that dread is building towards. Because of this, there is very little suspense. Personally I would have much preferred not to have known what was going to happen.
Many have called this book ‘the next Gone Girl’ (seemingly inevitable with any thriller these days) but for me the structure of the book kept me at a distance. How many people would have loved Gone Girl if we’d known about *that* twist in the first chapter?
The portrait of Louise the nanny is nevertheless fascinating. Myriam and Paul both prefer to think of her as the perfect woman who appears at their door every morning to take care of their children without comment or complaint. They don’t care about what happens when Louise leaves their apartment to go home – it doesn’t occur to them that they should care – until elements of Louise’s life start creeping into their own, and they can no longer ignore the fact that she is human, with her own flaws, just like them.
The reader, however, follows Louise in her private life and knows that all is not quite right with her. This dramatic irony between what the characters know and what the reader knows creates a sense of tension that keeps the reader engaged despite the fact that we already know where the plot is heading.
Louise is an anomaly: a white Frenchwoman working as a nanny, while all the other nannies at the park are immigrants. Slimani cleverly explores issues of race and class whilst also delving into the strange occupation of the nanny. Part of the family and yet outside of it, deeply trusted and yet kept at a distance, the nanny inhabits a liminal space but is nevertheless gifted with a staggering amount of power.
This unsettling thriller has its flaws, but as a quick, clever read guaranteed to shock and provoke contemplation, it’s well worth a read.
Thanks very much to Faber & Faber for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.