Why French novelist Leila Slimani wrote the story of a killer nanny
Leila Slimani is fiddling with her phone as we find a quiet corner amidst the din of Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 to talk about her novel Lullaby, which is making waves across the Anglophone world since the translation appeared last year (over 600,000 copies have sold till date, the book has won the Prix Goncourt, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France, has been translated into 18 languages, and 17 more editions are expected to appear in the coming months). “I want to quickly check on my children back in Paris,” Slimani says, scrolling down the screen. I restrain myself from blurting out the question on the tip of my tongue: Have you left them behind with a nanny?
The Moroccan-born French writer’s book, originally titled Chanson Douce, has one of the most brutal beginnings in the history of modern fiction: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer.” The culprit of this hideous crime, which also includes the murder of the little boy’s sister, is their nanny Louise, a character of monstrous complexity, who upsets the reader’s moral compass profoundly and inexorably. If it’s easy to deplore her actions, it’s as impossible not to feel pity for her gradual disintegration into a state of inescapable psychosis.
Louise’s predicament—from being a model employee, a nanny as beloved of her wards as their parents, to her ultimate descent into madness, is reminiscent of the fate of Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Outsider, a classic of modern French fiction Slimani loves and admits she may have been unconsciously influenced by. The opening lines of Lullaby seem to hark back to the first sentence of Camus’ novel too: “Mother died today.” The hammering thud of that beginning sets the tone for the rest of the work, as well as a psychological frame for the reader to follow Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, who, like Louise, looks at the world from a clinical distance, bleached of emotions. It’s a point of view Slimani shares. “I like to describe my characters as though they were all trapped in a glass box,” she says. “The only way you can know someone is through their actions—you can never know what’s going on inside them.” Later, she mentions another of her favourites, Book Of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and distils its essence in a single haunting sentence: “Every human being is an island and we can never know each other’s sorrows.”
Such epigrammatic observations are not typical of the staccato rhythm of Slimani’s prose. Reading Lullaby, which, she agrees, is “a story of urban loneliness”, is like watching a classic from the era of film noir, with its jump cuts and long shots, and feeling the effects these techniques have on the emotional see-saw of the audience. Slimani’s story is set in modern-day Paris, on the posh 10th arrondissement, in the home of a couple, Myriam, who, like her, is of Moroccan descent, and her husband Paul. With the birth of her children, Mila and Adam, Myriam decides to take a break from her flourishing career as a lawyer, while Paul continues to be employed, a condition perpetuated by patriarchal prejudice the world over. Myriam’s simmering resentment, however, reaches a crisis point after she’s offered a big break. Desperate to resume her career, she decides to get childcare and embarks on the quest for “the perfect nanny” (that’s the title of the US edition) along with her husband.
Their criterion is pragmatic: no immigrants (the irony is palpable, given Myriam’s own origins), especially illegal aliens, only someone who would make things work without getting too close to the children. In the end, Louise, a white French citizen who is hired for the job, not only becomes the ideal nanny to the children but also pampers the parents silly—cooking meals unbidden, doing household chores and running errands. What begins as a transactional contract soon evolves into a symbiotic bond between Louise and her employers. They can’t stop singing her praises to friends, Louise goes on holidays with them, the children, even Mila, forever cranky and throwing tantrums, become devoted to her.
Behind this idyllic carapace, Louise battles her own demons—memories of an abusive but (thankfully) dead husband, a daughter who has gone the wild way, and a life of abject indignity in a seedy quarter in Paris, living on the scraps thrown at her by the welfare state and a meagre income. “I wanted to highlight the social humiliation faced by a white woman doing a job that’s associated with immigrants,” Slimani says. “It was a revenge for me to say that we, the immigrants, can be the boss sometimes.” Her portrayal of Louise’s inner life, especially her steady plummet over the edge of sanity, is achieved through subtle and masterly strokes—a close-up of the miserably squalid part of town she lives in; or in one unforgettably chilling scene, where Louise, unable to bear the casual waste of a bourgeois family, retrieves a cooked chicken from the bin, feeds the leftovers to the children, and then leaves the carcass as a memento for their horrified mother to discover after she comes home from work.
In spite of her unspeakable cruelty, Louise leaves the reader horrified but hesitant too, unable to erase the sordid and piteous truth of her life, which Slimani builds up progressively, and the final push into tragedy. “I had a nanny growing up in Morocco and my parents encouraged me to put myself in her shoes sometimes,” Slimani says, as we say our goodbyes. “I wanted my readers to look through another person’s eyes,” she says. “My novel is meant to disturb them, leave them grappling with more questions than answers.”