Review: Lullaby

Ellen Birch 14 January 2018

I think it is particularly impressive when a book manages to be successful both commercially and in a literary sense, touching on something more profound: a feat accomplished by the new French novel Lullaby by Leïla Slimani. Her book strikes the perfect balance between these realms through its enthralling narrative style and engagement with complex issues such as class, race and feminism.

The book’s front cover is printed with the novel’s opening words, immediately revealing the novel as a whydunit rather than a whodunit: ‘The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds’, and the first chapter describes the murder of two young children by their nanny; the children of a wealthy young couple living in a chic apartment in an upmarket quartier of Paris. The novel’s protagonist, Myriam, is French-Morroccan (like Slimani herself), a new mother and ex-lawyer who yearns to return to her profession and escape full-time motherhood, leading the couple to hire a nanny. Louise is perfect from the outset; devoted, efficient and hardworking, taking on extra duties, working obscene hours and eventually proving such a vital part of the household that she inhabits their lives and marriage almost without the couple noticing.

A large part of the novel centres around guilt: of a mother who devotes too much time to her career, despite the father never stepping away from his, whilst the pair push aside the niggling fears concerning the state of their nanny’s personal life, preferring to focus on their own worries.

The narrative is subtle and suggestive and therefore all the more powerful and chilling: Louise’s full motivations are unclear, reflecting the chaos of her mind and causing her quiet presence to become increasingly ominous. This tension builds until the novel’s denouement; the same events of the start but with a dimension which is even more chilling now that the background has been filled in.

The concept of the killer nanny may be old hat, a familiar trope among horror films, but Slimani treats the subject with an impressive depth. Her focus on the issues that lie behind the troubled relationship between the young couple and their nanny is revealed slowly, creating a powerful impact on the reader as she reveals why the events culminated in violence and death.