Winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt and recently translated from the French by Sam Taylor, ‘Lullaby’ by Leïla Slimani has been one of the most talked-about novels so far this year, partly inspired by a real-life case of a nanny who killed two children in New York in 2012. Paul and Myriam live in a fashionable area of north-west Paris with their two young children, Mila and Adam. Paul works in the music business and Myriam is a criminal lawyer of North African descent who hires a nanny, Louise, to look after the children when she decides to resume her career. Initially, Louise appears to be perfect and indispensable to the family, but her behaviour becomes increasingly concerning.
Despite the much-hyped “killer nanny” premise typical of a thriller, ‘Lullaby’ is a literary whydunnit. The opening lines mirror those of ‘L’Étranger’ by Albert Camus and reveal the ending from the outset: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer”. However, what ‘Lullaby’ lacks in plot suspense it more than makes up for in subtle and deceptively complex social commentary surrounding class, gender and race as well as an authentic and unromanticised depiction of contemporary Paris. Casual racism is highlighted when the agency assumes that Myriam is looking for work as a nanny rather than help for her own family. Elsewhere, the career vs. motherhood debate is thoughtfully explored and there is humour in the way that Slimani satirises the pretensions of “bobo” (bourgeois-bohème) Parisians, such as Myriam’s friend who gives her children “unpronounceable names, taken from Nordic mythology, whose meanings she enjoys explaining”.
Many aspects of Louise’s character and background are kept deliberately vague. More questions are raised about her than are definitively answered, but we learn that she has left an abusive husband and the dispute she has had with an exploitative landlord is spiralling out of control. As Louise’s fragile personal life begins to impact her relationship with the family she works for, the dynamic in the household changes rapidly from one where she is adored by all and seen as a reliable saviour to a situation where being “too perfect” suddenly becomes problematic.
The conclusions are ultimately ambiguous – Louise is not fully excused for her actions but neither are Paul and Myriam portrayed as one-dimensional villains. There are also no easy answers to the question of whether a nanny should be considered part of the family or treated as an employee. Instead, context proves to be key and Slimani skilfully uses a provocative and sensational premise to subtly explore the underlying issues raised here. The result is a chilling novel which really gets under the skin.