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Leïla Slimani: Chanson douce (Lullaby (UK), The Perfect Nanny (US))

Miss Vezzis came from across the Borderline to look after some children who belonged to a lady until a regularly ordained nurse could come out. The lady said Miss Vezzis was a bad, dirty nurse and inattentive. It never struck her that Miss Vezzis had her own life to lead and her own affairs to worry over, and that these affairs were the most important things in the world to Miss Vezzis.

This quote from Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, in the foreword to the novel, sums up one of the themes of this novel, though there are several others. We know what is going to happen from the very first paragraph. Two young children have been brutally murdered and the mother has found the bodies when returning home. There was also the body of a person named only as the other, who has tried but failed to commit suicide. We later learn that this other is Louise, the children’s nanny. The book is about how and why this happened.

Paul and Myriam Massé live in a small flat on the fifth floor in Paris. He works as a music producer. She is of North African, presumably Moroccan, origin. She was studying law when she became pregnant for the first time. She managed to finish her final exams two weeks before she gave birth. The child – Mila – proved to be somewhat difficult but Myriam felt that she wanted to stay with her and bring her up. Indeed, she enjoyed being a mother so much that, though she was nominally on the pill, she became pregnant again and Adam was born. Initially, this works out well but, gradually, Myriam finds it difficult. Mila continues to be difficult, they take up all of her time and she has no other life. They are eating me alive, she says to herself. The only thing she can talk about with her husband and with others are her children. One day, she inadvertently takes some socks from a shop and only realises, when she has left the shop, that she has not paid for them. She continues to shoplift, often taking things she does not need.

One day, she bumps into Pascal. She is scruffy, unkempt and wearing old clothes. She feels ashamed. Pascal was a fellow law-student and he has now set up his own practice with a couple of others. She is very envious. However, later that day, she receives a text from him, offering her a job if she is interested. She is. Paul is opposed but then, after some strong persuasion, agrees. They will get a babysitter. She goes to an agency but the person she speaks to assumes that she is looking for a job as a babysitter, subtle racism being one of the themes of this novel. Paul and Myriam advertise and interview a succession of candidates.

Most of the candidates are totally unsuitable but then Louise arrives. She is a widow, with a grown-up daughter. She immediately hits it off with the children. Paul and Myriam are impressed. When they phone one of her previous employers, she is given a glowing reference. She is hired. Not only does she turn out to be a first-class babysitter, looking after the children well and getting on well with them, while dealing with Mila’s awkward behaviour, she also soon does other things. She cleans and tidies the flat, she prepares meals not only for the children but for Paul and Myriam. Gradually, unwittingly, they exploit her. Myriam increasingly works long and longer, staying very late at the office. They use Louise to cook for dinner parties. She even occasionally stays the night when the couple go out late. Louise does not seem to mind. Meanwhile, and perhaps not entirely surprisingly, Myriam is finding the law boring, as she has to deal with petty criminals and minor offences.

We learn a little about Louise’s daughter, Stéphanie. When she was around nine, her mother had a daycare service and Stéphanie helped her mother. However, Stéphanie could be spiteful and vicious. Eventually, her mother got a job with a rich family and they even took Louise and Stéphanie on holiday with them. Stéphanie, however, was made to feel unwanted and in the way. As she grew up, she became less close to her mother and, eventually, left. There has been no further contact between mother and daughter.

Paul and Myriam decide that they too, should take Louise on holiday with them, when they go to the Greek island of Sifnos. It does not work out too well, not least because Louise cannot swim, though Paul teaches her. From this point on, Myriam and Paul start to have concerns about Louise. We have more concerns, as we see Louise when Paul and Myriam do not – on her own, with other nannies, with her landlord, with the children. She is clearly not a happy woman; indeed, she is clearly disturbed.

Slimani deals with a range of issues that are more and more pertinent these days. These include, obviously, racism and sexism, but also the role of the respective parents in the upbringing of children, mothers juggling work and family concerns and the associated guilt that they are neglecting one or the other (or both); the exploitation of staff; the issue of illegal aliens and how they are exploited by employers; living alone in a big city and, of course, a range of mental health issues. Slimani tells her story well and does not shy away from dealing with contentious issues, while also telling us an excellent story of a couple who are struggling with their careers and cannot fully see what is happening to their children. The book won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016.

Publishing history

First published in French by Gallimard in 2016
First English translation by Penguin in 2018
Translated by Sam Taylor