by Alice McMahon, MA Near and Middle Eastern Studies
– a modern parent’s worst nightmare
“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”
Leila Slimani’s Lullaby begins with these chilling words, gripping the reader from the very beginning as she tells the story of how the perfect nanny goes from “a second mother” to cold-blooded murderer.
Lullaby is an incisive portrait of the fraught, uneasy relationship that exists between Myriam and Paul, a bourgeois Parisian couple, and Louise, their nanny. Not just an employee but not a friend either: almost part of the family and yet, do they really know her? At times, Paul and Myriam are filled with overwhelming gratitude toward the woman who makes their careers possible. At other times, this gratitude mutates into guilt and anger as the two parents reproach themselves at the perceived distance the nanny causes in their relationship with their children, and when Louise is perceived to have overstepped personal boundaries. Louise, too, struggles to maintain a professional distance as the loneliness in her own life compels her to build a nest at the heart of the family she cares for, driving home the complexities enmeshed in the marketization of emotional labour.
As well as a deftly written psychological portrait of the nanny-parent relationship, Lullaby is also a social novel. It is a portrait of the underworld of material and emotional poverty that Louise (who lives alone in a decrepit studio flat burdened by her dead husband’s debts) inhabits. This is captured perfectly in Slimani’s sparse and limpid prose, neatly translated by Sam Taylor.
Slimani’s ‘book-of-the-moment’ probes many of the anxieties of modern working parents as well as issues of class, gender and race, yet despite this, it never feels heavy. It is compulsively readable (I read it in one sitting) and shockingly memorable: put it on your reading list now