I first saw Lullaby by Leila Slimani being talked about as part of Erica Davis’ book club. (There’s more here if you’re interested in seeing the other books she’s reading Edited Recommends) All I knew about it was that it has won the Prix Goncourt in France and was being labelled a ‘nanny killer’ novel.
Lullaby, or The Nanny as it’s titled outside the UK, is the story of a middle-class Parisian family who decide to hire a nanny for their three young children when their mother, Myriam, decides to return to work as a lawyer. Louise seems like the perfect nanny complete with stellar references. Before long she becomes an indispensable part of the family much to both the joy and also resentment of Myriam and her husband Paul. The more she tries to help the family, the more Myriam and Paul begin to despise her.
|Leila Slimani’s, Lullaby|
This is very much a whydoneit rather than a whodoneit and the ‘why’ is the driving force behind the novel. The ‘why’ is plain to see if you look closely.
Louise is a woman who has dedicated her entire life to other people and their children. When it starts to appear as if the family no longer needs her, she takes drastic action. How believable you find this is up for debate. For her, the realisation that the family may no longer need her is devastating, especially since she no longer has any real family of her own. She lives her life through the families she works for and enjoys the praise she receives from being good at her jo,
What the writer does is to leave just enough room for the reader to understand that whilst there’s never any justification for the murder of a child, their parents aren’t entirely blameless either in their treatment of the nanny. In this way, Lullaby explores what might lead an individual to the point of murder, a psychological thriller, but one far less dramatic than the nanny-killer label the novel’s been given. This is far too simplistic a label and ignores the subtle way that Slimani tackles issues of class and race in contemporary French society. Louise, unlike many of the other nannies she meets, is white and French working for a woman from an immigrant background. Much of the tension between the two women stems from feelings of humiliation and not being ‘good enough’.
Slimani also choses to use the issue of class to bring to the forefront the stories of women who work to enable other women to succeed. We see this both with Louise and with the other nannies that she meets in the part including her friend Wafa. She does this in such a nuanced way that it packs a stronger punch. For example, she contrasts the two women’s appearance, their homes and the obsession with cleanliness.
It’s also the way that the issue of gender is tackled in the novel, that makes it so relevant. This is a female-led novel, one that questions what it means to be a women, a wife, a mother and successful in today’s society. This is something many women struggle with especially the guilt of trying to have it all. Here, we have contrasted in the characters of Louise and Myriam, the traditional female caregiving role with that of the modern woman. The lack of male child-rearing in the novel is also notable.
Slimani’s writing style is one that draws you in by offering alternating viewpoints from the two women. This gives the novel a layered feel, adding depth and opening up a contrast in how we feel towards Louise and Myriam.
For some people this novel may seem at first glance like an unpalatable read and the premise may put a great many off. Some have questioned whether the murder of children should be used for entertainment purposes but the same could be said for just about any other art form that deals with issue. But that’s not how I approached or read this novel, and I applaud the writer for daring to tackle the issue. I understand that a novel like this may be a difficult read for many people especially those who have experienced the loss of a child but I think when we start to tell people what they should or shouldn’t read and what they can and can’t write about, then we’re heading into dangerous territory. Instead, I recommend you decide for yourself.