The novel begins with the words, “The baby is dead.” Leïla Slimani, 37, author of Lullaby (Penguin Random House; on stands now), sustains the primal impact of her first sentence through the course of her novel, and is now an international literary sensation. Lullaby won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and has been translated into dozens of languages. There’s even talk of a film adaptation. The novel tells the story of an upwardly mobile couple, Paul and Myriam, in a gentrifying neighbourhood of Paris, and the terrible events that unfold after they hire a nanny called Louise to look after their two children. The climax is revealed at the outset, but the way Slimani portrays the gender, class and racial divisions in a city like Paris — and uses them in the service of a domestic thriller — makes this novel a fascinating hybrid of social commentary, and a gripping page-turner.
In the small world of a Parisian apartment, patterns of power shift relentlessly, underpinned by the strong currents of intimacy that develop in a domestic context. The sights and sounds of this world are familiar: the running of the children’s bathwater, the bedtime stories, the bags of lavender hung in the coat cupboard. But they all take on a macabre and disorienting cast as we are forced to confront that steady tick in the background, the indicator of how the story is going to end. Slimani is especially skilled at conveying the quiet menace that can be concealed in a game of hide-and-seek or in the preparation of a meal behind the kitchen door.
One of the most disturbing scenes of the book involves a chicken carcass retrieved from the bin, scrubbed clean and placed on the kitchen table. As Slimani’s glacial prose takes us ever closer to the damage and desperation that lie at the heart of Louise’s character, she works on our empathy in different ways. It is a navigation that is perfectly controlled, balancing the alienation of the strangely passive nanny with the standpoints of the sometimes entitled but often kindly parents. By laying bare issues that strike at the heart of parenthood, but especially motherhood, and what it means to be a good ‘liberal’ employer, Slimani has struck at the heart of private conversations that unfold every day in homes around the world.
ELLE: The story is steeped in Hitchcockian claustrophobia and suspense. Yet, you chose to begin it with a brutally stark revelation: “The baby is dead.” How did you decide on this structure?
Leïla Slimani: I did not want to write a classic thriller. I did not want the police investigation or the morbid suspense around the likely killing of the children to be the main narrative element. With this time inversion, the readers effectively conduct the investigation themselves. The stunning shock of the very first few pages is meant to hook the readers and heighten their level of attention. They can then focus on the many different lights in which I cast Louise, and build their own perspectives on what made Louise commit such a hideous act. So, while you could say that the construction of the novel spoils the suspense, I think it also creates an uncomfortable tension, placing the reader at the heart of the ‘action’.
ELLE: Your portrait of the mother, Myriam, and her desire to restart her legal career is vivid and urgent. We sense the danger of her failing to nurture this side of her personality: that it would make her a bad mum. Do you think this admission is still taboo?
LS: Yes, it is, even for ourselves. Maybe even more for ourselves. It is very difficult for a woman to admit to herself that being a mother does not make her totally happy. It is very painful to discover that you can feel lonely with your children; that sometimes you just want to go out and be something else other than a mother.
ELLE: How important was it for the novel that Louise, the nanny, be white?
LS: For me, first of all, it was a way to avoid a cliché, and to show that reality in our western societies is much more complex than we think. A boss does not have to be white; the employer can be an immigrant, and the employee can be a white woman. Secondly, the intent was also ironic: for a lot of people, the fact that the immigrant is the boss is in itself very violent! Louise is white, and it was a way for me to emphasise her humiliation and her loneliness. She is white, but she is doing the job of an immigrant, a fact that is degrading for her. And she is lonely: for example, in the scenes when she goes to the park with the children, and she is revealed to be the only white nanny. She does not belong to any group; there is no solidarity based on ethnic origin.
ELLE: The novel very strikingly portrays the blurring of boundaries between employer and employee in the domestic context — and this blurring seems to be inevitable. Was this your intention?
LS: I wanted to show that this relationship is special, but difficult to manage. You live in the same home, you share everything: this is very intimate. But at the same time, it is still a professional and hierarchical relationship. Myriam and Paul try their best: sometimes they are friendly, sometimes they act as employers. But nobody knows which is the correct way to act.
ELLE: You deal with the fact that Myriam is of North African origin with a very light touch. Myriam herself rejects a Moroccan nanny because of the ‘tacit complicity and familiarity’ that might develop between them. This feels like a pointed response to expectations of how characters from an ethnic or religious minority ‘should’ be written. Is it?
LS: Myriam’s objective in the hiring process is to avoid any natural proximity or familiarity with her future employee; she wants to establish clear boundaries to ensure their respective roles are understood and abided by. Obviously, the story shows that this precautionary measure does not suffice. The issue of identity has never been the main purpose of my books. But having said that, I do like to remind readers once in a while, and often with an ironic tone, of the fact that migrants still have to endure being stereotyped — and this is what I did with Myriam.
ELLE: Louise seems fairly passive in her relationships with her husband, landlord and even at times with her daughter. And yet, the place where she seeks to exert most control is in Paul and Myriam’s home. To what do you attribute this?
LS: I think that Louise is more involved in other people’s lives than in her own. She is a nanny, a domestic worker, and so she wants people to tell her how much they need her in their lives. She has never chosen anything for herself and, in a certain way, I think that her personal life does not interest her.
ELLE: Did you read anything as research for this book? What are you reading now?
LS: I read a lot of classic literature about domesticity, such as Le Journal d’Une Femme De Chambre by Octave Mirbeau, The Maids by Jean Genet, and A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert. At the moment, I am reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
Picture credit: Catherine Hélie/Editions Gallimard