“The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.” These are the opening lines of Leila Slimani’s haunting novel, Lullaby. Winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, the first chapter lays out the scene in a clinical fashion: the children have been brutally murdered by their nanny. The writing is sharp and unfussy, intensifying the experience for the reader. Slimani creates an urgency, each word promising to get you one step closer to the question that will plague you long after the final sentence: why?
Working backwards from the bleak beginning, the novel introduces us to Louise. The women who transforms the Massé’s lives. As their nanny, she simultaneously charms the children with her Peter Pan stories and songs, while making herself indispensable to the parents. She effortlessly organises their lives around two young children and two high powered careers. You might recognise Myriam and Paul. A successful couple asking what anyone in their position would: can you have it all? Whether you’re a parent or not, child rearing versus career is a regular feature on the feminist agenda.
This seesawing struggle of parenthood is uncomfortably played out in the novel. While Paul is able to breeze through, Myriam can only achieve the ultimate brand of bourgeois motherhood with the help of Louise. However this desire for perfection is eerily mirrored by the nanny’s own pursuit of love and status. Both women ultimately ask for the same thing: societal acceptance. Myriam in her desire nurture her career as well as her children, and Louise in her attempt to shrug off the associations of class by becoming one of the family.
But both women are punished for stepping outside of the preconceived boundaries of their roles, and lose everything as a result. In her own words, Slimani says of the novel “maternal instinct is a male construct that has been used for centuries to keep women in their place.” Rather than an indictment of working mothers or hired help, Lullaby is an excruciating observation of gender and class in set within the narrative of a gripping crime thriller.
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Lullaby by Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor. Published by Faber & Faber, 2018.