Leïla Slimani

Translated by Sam Taylor

Published by Faber & Faber UK/Penguin US

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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Leïla Slimani’s unsettling and exceptionally clever second novel (first published in France under the title Chanson Douce and currently in the US as The Perfect Nanny) won the illustrious Prix Goncourt in 2016.  You can see why.  It is a story of derangement, rooted in the familiar but subverting expectations.  A thriller of a most unusual kind, it looks at the life of a working mother in Paris, who takes the risk of asking another woman to look after her children.  The book open with the murder of both the children.  In short, it is a horror story.

At first, every word of this tale rings true.  The mother, Myriam, a talented French-Moroccan lawyer, is not sure how to tell her unsympathetic husband, Paul, that, despite her hopes and best intentions, she feels as if her children are ‘eating her alive’ (‘sometimes she wanted to scream like a lunatic in the street…she felt as if she were dying’).  The reader feels for this woman, who is finding motherhood much harder and lonelier than she had expected, and whose husband initially ridicules her professional ambition.  They decide to hire someone, setting aside one single Saturday afternoon to find the right person.  The woman they choose is Louise, a white working-class Parisian with a glowing reference from her previous employer.

From here on, the reader is invited to watch, appalled, as the question, ‘What is the perfect nanny?’ is asked and answered.  So thrilled are the Masses that they don’t stop to ask themselves why this servant of theirs, who so delights their children with her inexhaustible games and fairy tales, has all the time in the world to keep their apartment cleaner than it has ever been before, to work all hours, even to cook fantastic food for their dinner parties.  Myriam goes back to work, unaware of the ‘black lake’ inside her employee.

For Louise has her own hinterland, just like anyone else.  It involves huge debt racked up by a dead partner, a dismal bedsit, single-parenthood, a delinquent daughter who has gone missing.  That it also includes a medical diagnosis of ‘delirious melancholia’ is the Masses’ bad luck.

Intimations of madness, of dangerous involvement and detachment, appear very early in the narrative, but the real Louise is invisible to her employers.  The reader watches, aghast, as this hapless woman falls to pieces while in charge of someone else’s children.  In calm, steady, devastating prose, Slimani tracks the daily life of this sample urban nanny, both at home in the Masses’ flat and out in the city.  There are searing scenes in the park (where Louise moves trancelike among other nannies from all over the world), evoking the compromises required by poverty, the solidarity of the underdog and the bleak routines of the lonely and marginalized  –  ‘lives that will never be recorded’.  There are scenes of atrocious insensitivity, as when the Masses and their friends discuss property prices and expensive holidays in front of Louise, who is also expected to put up with their sexual tactlessness when they take her on one of those holidays.  They just have no inkling of Louise’s descent into hell, as she thinks that ‘soon…she will be on the street…she will shit in the street, like an animal.’

In short, this is a powerful novel on many levels, asking questions about parenting, race, class, luck and identity.  From the children to the investigating police officer, no-one escapes the central fact that every single one of us has an inner life and that we ignore this at our peril.











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