by Leïla Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Faber and Faber, January 2018
The Perfect Nanny
Penguin Books, January 2018
“The baby is dead.” With this heart-stopping sentence Leïla Slimani starts her book Lullaby which won the Prix Goncourt last year. The baby, Adam, has been stabbed and his head has been smashed in. And there is no doubt who did it: Louise, the family’s forty-year old nanny. Louise has also stabbed Adam’s older sister Mila, who dies a paragraph or two later. After having attacked the children, Louise slashed her own wrists and then drove a knife through her throat. She survives and is rushed to the hospital. This is all revealed in the short and detail-rich first chapter of the book – no bloody twist is left out – when the children’s mother Myriam comes home from work and discovers the horrible scene.
The rest of the novel describes the years that lead up to the killing. The book is no whodunit, that much is made clear from the get-go. Instead, the book is set up as a character study, focusing on the two central female characters, Myriam and Louise. Slimani alternates between the perspective of these two and the point of view of various side characters who help bring the story of Myriam and Louise across, for instance a neighbor who serves as a witness in Louise’s trial and the police’s chief investigator of the case.
Through the course of the book, we learn about Myriam, the dead children’s French Moroccan mother, who stays at home after Mila’s birth but desperately wants to go back to work as a lawyer shortly after Adam is born. And hence, she hires Louise who at the beginning seems the perfect nanny with her “smooth features” and an “open smile.” We also learn (a little bit) about Myriam’s husband Paul, a music-producer and most importantly, we learn about Louise, the deadly nanny. All this is told in a quiet, almost detached language which nevertheless draws the reader in. Like when Louise’s work is described:
She must have magical powers to have transformed this stifling, cramped apartment into a calm, light-filled place. Louise has pushed back the walls. She has made the cupboards deeper, the drawers wider. She has let the sun in.
Or when we get a glimpse of Myriam’s happiness after being back at work:
Myriam gets to the office before eight. She is always the first there. She turns on the desk lamp, nothing else. Beneath that halo of light, in the that cave-like silence, she rediscovers the concentration she used to have in her student years.
Character study can make for an interesting an engaging read, certainly when a book is as well-written as this one, but unfortunately, Slimani’s novel doesn’t quite deliver. Although we are told many details about Louise and her past, the reader is left with the unsatisfying sensation that the author didn’t know what to make of her ‘villain.’ Is she mentally disturbed from the beginning or does she simply snap? Are the abusive men in Louise’s life responsible for her deed, or is it caused by financial problems? All these conflicting possibilities are put into the story, and they are left hovering without ever truly connecting. And the ending feels as if the author had decided at some more or less arbitrary point: “I’ve written enough pages, let’s just stop here.”
While you might argue that these grievances are subjective and depend on the expectation of the individual reader, they are not the only problems of the book. The plot is inconsistent as well.
According to Slimani the story was inspired by the real-life case of Yoselyn Ortega, a New York-nanny who killed two children and then tried to commit suicide in 2012. Unlike Yoselyn (who’s murder trial started in the spring of 2017), Slimani’s killer-nanny remains in a coma. But still, there is a trial. Which, obviously, is nonsense. There would never be a trial if the accused is in a coma and thus unfit to participate. It is even doubtful whether the police would put much work into interrogating witnesses, or doing a reconstruction at the scene as described in the book, knowing that Louise will most likely never wake up.
And there is yet another plot-botch: Louise’s money-problems. They are caused almost entirely by her late husband who “left her only debts.” The money situation is important, since Slimani offers it as one of the possible reasons for Louise’s actions. Therefore, it is brought up often, and both Paul and Myriam are aware of it. There is only one problem: Louise could have easily gotten herself out of the financial mess by waiving her right to her husband’s inheritance. Even if Louise didn’t know this, Myriam would have; she is a lawyer after all. And the possibility to reject an inheritance remains for ten years after the death of Louise’s husband. (One can’t help but wonder, by the way, why none of the book’s multiple editors or, for that matter, the judges of the Goncourt-prize noticed these two lapses.)
Leila Slimani is certainly a talented author, but in Lullaby the excellent writing can’t make up for the substantial flaws of the book.
Britta Böhler is a German-born author and former law professor. She has published literary fiction and a series of crime novels as well as various non fiction books about real life criminal cases. Her internationally acclaimed novel about Thomas Mann (English translation: The Decision) has been translated into eight languages. She lives in Amsterdam and Cologne and she writes in German, English and Dutch. For more information: www.brittaboehler.com