by Leïla Slimani
The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.
When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite and devoted woman who sings to their children, cleans the family's chic apartment in Paris's upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint and is able to host enviable birthday parties.
The couple and nanny become more dependent on each other. But as jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase, Myriam and Paul's idyllic tableau is shattered...
I came across Lullaby in an issue of The Bookseller not long before its publication, and as soon as I saw it I knew I'd want to read it. Not only do I want to read more translated fiction but I was fascinated by its incredibly dark premise, which was giving me The Hand That Rocks the Cradle vibes. Lullaby is essentially a whydunnit which opens with the death of two children who have been murdered by their nanny, and then travels back to before the nanny's employment to explore how things come to this horrific conclusion.
Firstly, this is an excellent translation. Sam Taylor did a wonderful job of translating from the French and still making the book dark and lyrical. If you are French or a French speaker, however, I imagine this book is absolutely stunning in French.
Because we already know what happens to Myriam and Paul's children, the first half of the book was so tense and I found it hard to put it down; Louise, the nanny, is unnerving and simply too perfect, like a Mary Poppins gone horribly wrong. Supercalifragilisticshe's-secretly-atrocious. To call Louise evil, however, doesn't seem right, especially not in the first half of the book. What she ends up doing is vile, but Lullaby is clever in the way it explores how the people we let into our families can change things and also how parents who can afford to hire nannies can sometimes take advantage of them or patronise them without realising.
Sadly, I do think Lullaby has been the victim of dishonest marketing. I keep seeing it marketed as a thriller and, to be honest, I don't think it is. Yes there's a murder, but this story is much more social commentary than anything else. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you go into this book expecting a thriller and find instead a very domestic, quiet and short novel about social politics you're bound to feel a little betrayed.
For me I also felt as though the book lost its way in the middle and I wasn't as interested. I don't have children and therefore I've never been in the position of having to trust someone I don't really know to look after them, so perhaps I would act the same way as Myriam does in this novel, but there were quite a few times when Louise's behaviour was disturbing enough that I would have let her go. The tragedy is that Louise's life hasn't been easy and she's suffered a lot, but Myriam's continued employment doesn't come from a place of compassion but a place of pity and those aren't the same thing at all. We'll never know if things would have been different if Myriam and Paul had treated Louise a little differently, but however much I felt sorry for someone I'd like to think I'd still remove them from my life if I felt like my children weren't entirely safe. That's not to say I blame Myriam and Paul for what happens, the only person to blame is Louise because she is the murderer, but at times I found it hard to believe that they would continue to employ her - particularly after one instance in which Louise takes a chicken carcass out of the bin and makes the children eat all of the meat on it until it is literally bone dry. Uh, get away from my children please!
I was hoping to like Lullaby a lot more than I did. I didn't hate it by any means and there are lots of good things about it, but what's made me the most uneasy is that Lullaby is actually based on a true story. This is something I didn't know until I'd finished reading it, but a nanny was found guilty of killing two children, very similarly to the way Louise kills Myriam and Paul's children, in New York in 2012. In fact when I looked into it I discovered she has only been sentenced this year. This is just a personal thing, but I really didn't like that I'd read a novel that is so close to something that happened very recently about this topic. Those parents in New York will be grieving for the rest of their lives, but it must still be so fresh having to wait six years for their nanny to be found guilty and now there's this novel bouncing around heavily based on their story that's trying to make the nanny look sympathetic. For me it just felt a little insensitive, and I felt as though the novel could have been publicised without mentioning the true crime it was based on. If Slimani found this story inspiring then I don't think she should have not written it, but I can't help feeling sorry for those real parents whenever I see the book mentioned in magazines in relation to the crime that inspired it.
Would I recommend it? Yes, if you can handle the subject matter. The way it's written is beautiful and it does have a lot to say about race and class and the way we sometimes take advantage of our employees, but unfortunately I didn't like this one as much as I'd hoped I would.