Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

Review published on March 2, 2018.

Lullaby is a masterpiece, an exposé of the human condition in extremis. Once you start reading you will be spellbound to the end. The topic, the murder of a baby, is a tough one to face up to but what will keep you reading is the question: “why?” As the story unfolds and we discover more about the characters and their relationships the details emerge as they do in an official inquiry into a tragic death, the clues to the crime become obvious in hindsight. The tragedy of these parents is that they don’t have hindsight or prefect knowledge. Life is about learning and sometimes we learn too late, it’s heart rending reading at times. In Lullaby dangers don’t always flash red, the desire to believe good of people clouds judgement, as does the desire not to judge others or cause embarrassment by confronting certain issues.

Lullaby is also an exceptional thriller, unlike here the French are not snobby about genre and Slimani won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary prize in France, for this novel. It’s a highly literary thriller, every bit as exciting and chilling as the best psychological thrillers of recent years. It’s a story that will drive a compulsion for answers for readers.

A lot has been made of Slimani’s background, to some extent there a cultural inversion in the novel. The mother is a rich woman of unspecified North African descent (Slimani was born in Morocco). The nanny is a poor white woman with problems living in a rundown district of Paris. Slimani is quick to point out her father was a government minister, her mother a doctor and her background privileged, so it’s not her story but there are elements of the immigrant experience here. There are moments when racism comes to the fore. People are always judging Miriam as a working mother and she has to face casual misogyny from her daughter’s teachers. When she applied for a carer for the children the owner of the agency automatically assumes she is looking for a job as a nanny. Her attitude changes when she realises the woman is a customer. This is not a novel of cultural/racial identity per se but the issues are here and they are nuanced. Miriam who wants to be fair to the perspective employee doesn’t want an undocumented worker, not because it morally wrong but because they may fear the authorities if a problem occurs. The irony is that the nanny is the danger, not the attitudes and actions of the contemporaneous world.

This highbrow French thriller begins with a harrowing scene, the aftermath of the attack on the two children. There is no false hope or suspense just one mother’s nightmare being realised. It’s a horrifying start, a dead baby and dying toddler. A nanny that has tried to commit suicide. A mother inconsolable, broken. Mariam has come home early, bearing cakes and a plan for an afternoon in the park. The world has come crashing in on the apparently safe middle-class existence of Miriam and Paul, the proud parents of Mila and Adam. We learn that Miriam graduated law school a month before having Mila, throughout the pregnancy and early months she insists on coping by herself. Eighteen months later, Adam is born. Looking after both is a draining task, Miriam feels trapped, unable to be herself, stripped of her adult life (a little jealous of Paul’s ability to come and go). Then there are the little thefts – shop lifting – maybe an attempt at taking control of her life, an act of daring. A chance meeting with an old college friend, Pascal, leaves Miriam wanting back into the world of work. Pascal offers her a job and Miriam jumps at it despite the friction it causes with Paul, the money will only pay for the nanny. He doesn’t understand the wider drive to be part of something other than the children’s lives. Miriam looks for a nanny, the first few candidates are wrong but then there is Louise. She has Mila laughing with a game as soon as she enters the apartment, her references are impeccable. On her first day she is early. Miriam refers to her miracle worker, she cooks cleans and minds the children. Within a few weeks she is indispensable. Miriam does well at work, she has always believed that children no barrier to getting on. Then there is the story of Louise and her own daughter Stéphanie. The nanny’s relationship with her child is strained, even strange and alarming, but Miriam has no idea of this. Louise’s references were excellent and they even take her on the family holiday. Subtly, often beyond the understanding of the parties involved, the dynamic changes. Louise hates the place she lives, her own apartment and she suffers from what the doctor calls delirious melancholia. She carries a threat “like a wounded lover”. There are signs of her inappropriate anger and her alcohol problem, her messy tax affairs and her rent arrears. But what leads to the murder of children? What went wrong? Why does a woman, 40+, a widow living in a one bed apartment, a woman who appears stable to the wider world, go off the rails so horrendously? Lullaby is not a who done it but a why done it, a psychological study. A deeply subtle character study, a study of relationships, of misunderstanding and assumptions, of societal attitudes, of misogyny, of marriage and how we interact with people employed but trusted. Ultimately, it’s about a tragedy, can we understand what happened?

Lullaby will leave you a little drained but richer for having read an exceptional novel. Thriller almost seems like a trivial word in the context of the subject but how else do you describe a book that gets to you like Lullaby. I think this would be an ideal book for a literary readers group.

Paul Burke 5/5

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
Faber & Faber 9780571337538 pbk Jan 2018

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