The opening lines from Lullaby (Faber, January) are the most shocking I have read for a very long time, if not ever: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived.”
The novel then moves back in time to reveal the events that led to the murder of two tiny children. Lullaby is the story of a middle-class couple, French-Moroccan lawyer Myriam and her husband Paul, who live in Paris’ chic tenth arrondissement with their two young children, Mila and Adam. When Myriam decides to return to work after having children, the couple look for a nanny. Of the women who respond to Myriam’s advert and show up for an interview, Louise stands out immediately. She is a quiet, self-contained woman of indeterminate age - although she does have a grown-up daughter - with smooth features and an open smile. Myriam and Paul are charmed.
Things go well at first: Louise seems devoted to the children but also seems happy to do extra work for her employers. She cleans the apartment and stays late whenever she is asked. Myriam and Paul cannot believe their luck. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, things start to change and what follows is a riveting exploration of power, jealousy and resentment.
Lullaby is Moroccan-born Leila Slimani’s second novel, but her first to be published in English. A bestseller in France, it also won the prestigious Prix Goncort, making Slimani only the seventh woman to win the prize in its 112-year history, and the first Moroccan woman ever to win. Rights have sold in 36 countries to date. Over the phone from her home in Paris, Slimani explains in careful English (not her first language), occasionally pausing to search for the precise word, that she always wanted to write a novel about a nanny: “A nanny is a woman who lives in an apartment, but the apartment is not her own. She raises children, teaches them how to walk, how to speak, she gives them food - but these children are not her children. So she is in a very ambiguous place.”
In elegant but non-showy prose, each sentence economical but powerful, the novel explores the uneasy relationship between a mother and the person she employs to take care of her children. Throughout history there has always been a very clear line between the mistress of the house and the domestic staff but now, Slimani observes, “everyone wants to do it as if they were friends; as if we were all equals”, a pretence which, in the novel, leads to tragedy.
Slimani was born in Morocco and moved to France at the age of 17 to enrol at Sciences Po, the renowned Paris Institute of Political Studies. As a child growing up in Rabat she had a nanny and remembers that “even as a little child, maybe six or seven, I could feel the competition between my mother and her.” She recalls the nanny being told that she was a part of the family “but at the same time I was aware that she was not really a member of the family. I was very aware of the hypocrisy, or at least that every one was playing a role - pretending she was a member of the family, but everyone knew she was not.”
But the seed for the novel came from the terrible news story about the real-life case of Yoselyn Ortega, a nanny from the Dominican Republic who was accused of murdering two young charges in her employer’s New York apartment in 2012. Slimani then saw the way in to her novel and where she would begin: “It was the first page I wrote” she says of the heart-stopping opening page, “and I never corrected it”. She knew she did not want to write “a classical thriller because a thriller is a specific type of book with its own codes. I did not want the police investigation, or the morbid suspense around the murder of the children to be the main narrative element”.
Slimani read a great deal of literature about the dynamics between servants and the families they work for, notably Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (The Diary of a Chambermaid) a 1900 novel by Octave Mirbeau about a servant who becomes entangled in the power struggles of her employers’ marriage and Jean Genet’s play “Les Bonnes” (“The Maids”), inspired by the case of real-life sisters Christine and Lea Papin, live-in maids who murdered their mistress and her daughter in Le Mains, France, in 1933. “I think it is an old story, a universal story” says Slimani, of the fraught domestic relationship, “but I wanted to put it in our contemporary world, in Paris, and see what it is today”.
The price of motherhood
Lullaby examines the place of the mother in today’s society. Myriam is a mother who loves her children but needs a life beyond them at work. She struggles with the idea that, as a mother, you are expected to subjugate your whole life to your children in the way that fathers of young children are not. Slimani is interested in what she calls the mythology around motherhood: “I remember when I was a teenager, people telling me ‘you know, when you are a mother you will never feel lonely, you will feel so much love and you will be fulfilled by this love’. Then I became a mother. And I learnt that is absolutely wrong, you can feel very lonely with your children, even if you love them... Motherhood is not only something very pure and very full of love, it can be full of dark things too.”
Lullaby is also a novel about class. Louise, Slimani observes, is an invisible woman. “Firstly, she is a woman, then she has a precarious job and also she lives in the suburbs so [all these things make her] invisible in our society.”In the novel we see the face that Louise presents to the family, and to Wafa, another childminder, a new friend that she makes in the local park. But beneath Louise’s unruffled exterior there are dark currents; an abusive marriage to her late husband, an estrangement from her daughter and her mistreatment at the hands of former employers, all of which help to propel her towards the tragedy.
Faber will publish Slimani’s début novel Dans le jardin de l’ogre (The Ogre’s Garden) in 2019. A novel about a married Parisian woman in the grip of a sex addiction which leads her to constantly cheat on her husband, it won Morocco’s Prix La Mamounia in 2015. At present Slimani is touring France with her third book, Sexe et mesonges: la vie sexualle au Maroc (Sex and Lies: Sexual Life in Morocco), a non-fiction account based on the testimonials of Moroccan women that explores sexual repression and female sexual desire. Here is a talented writer impressively unafraid to challenge society’s darkest taboos.