Book review: Leïla Slimani's Lullaby is a worthy read that will chill its readers

Lullaby has been called the French Gone Girl but it is more chilling than thrilling and contains no devious twists

People walk down a pedestrian street in the Saint-Blaise neighborhood of Paris on April 17, 2015.     AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE / AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE
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The opening lines of Lullaby, Leïla Slimani's first novel to be published in English, are neither child-friendly nor sweetly sung. "The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds." These two sentences on the cover suggest the book is about a tragic natural death and the effort of internalising trauma, surmounting grief and carrying on.  

Slimani – a French-Moroccan journalist and novelist – quickly topples those preconceptions. The preliminary scene is a crime scene. A mother returns home early from work and finds her chic apartment in the 10th arrondissement in Paris is a bloodbath. Her baby son, Adam, is dead. Her daughter Mila "will be too, soon". Paramedics also try to save a woman who has slashed her wrists and stabbed herself in the throat.

This grisly scene is a false start. It is not the novel's true beginning but a flash-forward to its brutal end. Slimani rewinds to a healthier and happier time, and from there shows how sanity gives way to madness, hope curdles into despair and something wicked this way comes.

Myriam is a stay-at-home mother who decides her "simple, silent, prisonlike happiness" is not enough to console her. She wants to resume work as a lawyer and when an opportunity arises at a friend's legal practice, she grabs it. First, though, she and her husband Paul must find a suitable nanny. Myriam – French-Moroccan like her creator – has one stipulation: the woman they hire must not be North African. Friends try to talk her round – "She could speak Arabic to them since you don't want to" – but Myriam explains she is wary of "immigrant solidarity".

After several interviews they meet Louise, who provides good references and makes a great first impression. “She looks like a woman able to understand and forgive everything.” She is promptly employed and wastes little time making herself not just useful but indispensable. She tames wild-child Mila and entertains both children with songs, stories and creative games. She goes beyond her remit by organising lavish birthday parties, mending clothes, washing curtains, changing sheets and transforming the family’s stifling, cramped quarters into an airy, light-filled abode. To Paul she is like Mary Poppins; to Myriam she is a “miracle-worker”.

Myriam starts to stay late at the office, secure in the knowledge that Louise is taking care of everything at home, "single-handedly holding up this fragile edifice". Louise starts sleeping at her workplace – "patiently builds her nest in the middle of the apartment".

That image is gradually, inevitably, redefined and Louise becomes a cuckoo in the nest. Slimani provides intimations of menace that glint darkly in otherwise innocuous passages. "Her face is like a peaceful sea," we are told, "its depths suspected by no one." At one point Louise surveys the apartment, observing each room "with the self-assurance of a general standing before a territory he is about to conquer."  

The stories Louise tells the children are “cruel tales” in which the heroes die. A game of hide-and-seek results in the children feeling scared and abandoned, while she, undetected and untroubled, looks on “as if she’s studying the death throes of a fish she’s just caught”. Slimani fleshes Louise out by depicting her adrift in her small, soulless studio flat in the suburbs of Paris, and by unspooling her backstory and bringing in the perspectives of a husband who dies on her and a daughter who deserts her.

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Tensions mount when Louise gets on Paul's nerves and he considers firing her. Paul's mother-in-law labels Louise "that phoney nanny, that fake mother on whom Myriam depended, out of complacency, out of cowardice". Louise makes herself at home, and her bizarre behaviour unleashes acrimony and suspicion, and perhaps most terrifying of all, a sense of helplessness. Myriam realises Louise is too embedded in the family, too entrenched in their lives, to be cast out. "They'll say their goodbyes and she'll knock at the door, she'll come in anyway; she'll threaten them, like a wounded lover."

Lullaby has been called the French Gone Girl but it is more chilling than thrilling and contains no devious twists. The prose varies drastically in quality, and some sentences are borderline bland: "That conversation left a bitter taste in her mouth. She felt angry with Paul." Others are melodramatic: "She [Louise] didn't know how to die. She only knew how to give death." It is unfair to blame translator Sam Taylor for such infelicities.

Slimani writes most persuasively when ratcheting up the suspense and steering us towards the shocking conclusion. The last 60 pages are an adrenaline-rush of warped mind-games, desperate measures and dead-end panic. As we approach the "sordid theatre" of the denouement we peer into Louise's "rotting soul".

Slimani's novel won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award. She makes sharp observations on power and class and examines the fine line between use and abuse, devotion and obsession, and overreliance and exploitation. It is here where she truly grips us, here where Lullaby hits all the right notes.