Sunday, 25 February 2018

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

A psychological thriller about any parent's worst nightmare

The premise of Lullaby is wickedly effective; how would you respond, as a parent, when your baby is harmed by the very person you trusted to protect them? The story begins with a murder; a shocking and chilling premise that creates real pace from the off but does knowing 'who did it' from the beginning pay off in the end?

In Leila Slimani's novel successful French-Moroccan lawyer Myriam and her husband Paul, in the up-market 10th Arrondissement of Paris, employ a nanny to take care of their daughter and baby son. Myriam is a brilliant lawyer who 'always dreamed of courtrooms'. Whilst preparing for the bar exam she obsessed about the trial of serial killer Michel Fourniret, L'Ogre des Ardennes, who murdered 8 women and girls between 1987 and 2001. Yet Myriam openly welcomes Louise, a relative stranger, into her family's lives.

Before long the family become dependent, the kids adore her and boundaries between nanny and friend begin to blur.  Louise, a white women in her 40s travels in to town each day from the sprawling banlieus on the outskirts of the city to work. At the park she struggles to fit in with the other nannies who view her with caution being culturally distant from the other Asian and African women. Myriam hadn't wanted to employ a North African nanny 'she had always been wary of what she calls immigrant solidarity'.

As the story builds we see glimpses of doubt from both Myriam and her husband; when Louise stays over in the family house, though they are away on holiday, the couple are unnerved and when Louise encourages Myriam's daughter to try make-up Paul is furious. But the kids love their nanny, 'She is Vishnu, the nurturing divinity, jealous and protective, the she-wolf at whose breast they drink'.

If there is a problem with Lullaby it lies in the absence of any real explanation for the murder. Louise's apparent break down is barely covered and her motivation is left to the reader to determine. In truth, Lullaby is less about the murder and more about a new and contemporary perspective on Paris in which immigrant stereotypes are subverted. This refreshing view point surely goes some way to explain why Slimani is so successful at home in France and an ambassador for the French language having been recruited by President Macron. 

The book cover effectively heightens the hype around this novel, the baby blue blouse and the title Lullaby at first seem whimsical until you read the copy 'The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds' and suddenly you're appraising the cover. The Peter Pan collar in the artwork is frighteningly reminiscent of Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968). Lullaby sold by the bucket loads in France and now works just as dramatically in translation into English by Sam Taylor.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani and translated by Sam Taylor published by Faber and Faber, 224 pages.     

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