A few weeks ago both my Twitter and Instagram feeds went crazy with a new crime fiction book. With a seemingly naïve cover portraying a blue dress with a peter pan collar and the line “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds”, Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby – entitled The Perfect Nanny in the US – became the book everyone was reading. Marketed as the next Gone Girl (will it ever end?) and with a delightful translation by Sam Taylor, the novel published by Faber & Faber promised to be one of the books of 2018.
Lullaby – Chanson Douce in the French original – tells the story of Myriam and Paul, a young Parisian couple who are searching for a nanny for their two children, Mila and Adam. Paul is a music producer and after finishing her Law studies and giving birth to her children, Myriam feels dissatisfied with the failed promises of motherhood. When she encounters a university friend during a day out and he offers her a job, she does not knows she must immediately accept it, though her husband openly shows his doubts. Slimani does a great job of portraying the social expectations and tensions between the desires of modern womanhood, in this case, split between motherhood and a professional career. After doing some numbers, the couple agrees to hire a nanny and that is when Louise enters the story.
As in any good mystery or psychological novel, we do not know much about Louise. She is blonde, seemingly fragile, and very good nanny. She comes to Myriam and Paul with outstanding references from her previous employees and the kids seem to take to her immediately after their first meeting. The couple then agrees to hire Louise and from this moment on the novel focuses on the complex dynamics of a household where traditional family roles are challenged. While Paul and Myriam spend their days working away, Louise is in charge of not only the children but the household chores too. When she arrives at the couple’s apartment in Paris’ tenth arrondissement, the place is total chaos, but Louise makes it a personal project of her to make of her new employers’ home the embodiment of the perfect burgeois Parisian lifestyle.
Lullaby, which is the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016, has been praised for tackling social class and racial issues in France, a country that has a long and recent history of racism derived from its colonial past. It is not a coincidence that Myriam comes from North Africa and she puts a lot of energy into “fitting in”, which means a total silencing of her roots, particularly her speaking of Arabic. Though racism and discrimination plague the novel, the most obvious example comes when Myriam visits an agency to hire a nanny and she is mistaken for a nanny herself. Once Louise comes into the scene with her French ways, she also makes an effort to distance herself from the “veiled nannies” and those of African origin. Lousie believes she and her new family are different, and she makes it patent.
Though the novel is a strong psychological tale of domesticity and race in Paris, it is not a traditional crime novel. Sure, there is a crime, but the structure and the development of the plot resemble more a character study than a crime novel. And even taking into consideration the crime element, Lullaby is closer to Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, so celebrated last year and now long forgotten. Both novels seem to take on the current success of crime fiction and twist it to produce a novel that will become a best-seller. Lullaby is definitely a quick and entertaining read. A decent European psychological novel? Yes. The next Gone Girl? Not by far.