“Not quite the Prix Goncourt of a read we expected” – Lullaby by Leila Slimani

llsLeila Slimani’s debut arrives on these shores, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, surfing a wave of giddy euphoria. Winner of the Prix Goncourt, international bestseller, already garnering heady phrase all of which makes a very great deal of the first line of the book (“The baby is dead”). This year’s Gone Girl those kinds of people who get excited by such a prospect say. This year’s The Girl on a Train. This year’s… you get the point. It’s trying very hard to be this year’s version of the book that everybody reads and gasps about and passes feverishly from hand to hand. Or rather, it’s not trying too hard but the media that surrounds it is. We can’t blame the book for the heady froth others work themselves up into.

In some respects, this is a novel not dissimilar to Matthew Weiner’s Heather, the Totality, in that we are privy to a marriage from different perspectives (although Slimani lacks the balance of Weiner who allowed for a more even plurality of views; Slimani, we sense, is a restless writer – in addition to the main characters, a wife and husband, Myriam and Paul, in a well-off Parisian neighbourhoood, and their nanny, Louise, we also hear from the lady who lives downstairs, a member of the police, and another another nanny who befriends Louise, amongst others). As that cover-defined first line indicates, the book begins with a violent double murder. A young child is brutally murdered. His slightly older sister takes a battering she never recovers from. The mother is removed, sedated. The child’s nanny is guilty. All of this we learn in a couple of pages. Lullaby is concerned with how we got here.

This is a tricky gambit. Here is a book, the book itself boldly informs you, without suspense, because you know everything that will happen – or at least you know where this ends up. (You also get the sneaky suspicion, here is a book that looks askance at other crime books that would deign to rest their covers or, Heaven forfend, their back ends alongside this one – this is no common or garden crime novel, this is a book that sets out to rival In Cold Blood, we are in the land of motivation; Lullaby, we sense, considers itself rather haughtily above such things.) If this is a crime novel at all, it is a very literary crime novel. And that is fine, in its own way. We’re not averse to character studies. In point of fact, this is a novel that comes, at times, within shouting distance of other Faber-published novels we can think of, works by Marie Darrieussecq, say, or Sara Gran (whose Come Closer Lullaby shares a strong kinship with – although Come Closer is much, much better).

What we get here is a tale that is, to some extents, familiar: busy successful couple take on nanny who proves to be a Mary Poppins-style wonder… until… gradually, her guard slips and it turns out she’s… well, you know, a child-killing psychopath. We should say, if you were to divide the book into three bits, the Mary Poppins-style wonder fills about a third of the book, the guard slipping fills up almost two thirds of the book and a very small sliver, the kind of thing you’d prise out of your carpet three weeks after smashing a plate, centres on the child-killing psychopathy. Slimani is quite good on how difficult it is for a modern woman to balance work and home (Myriam loves work but feels guilty at the same time), she’s less good on the motivation of the husband (who we tend to see from the outside, for the most part) and – well, the nanny Louise comes and goes. We get a glimpse of the path that brought her here (difficult marriage, widowhood, debts, shitty apartment, shittier landlord – who we also hear from on a couple of occasions), we get a glimpse of her strangeness, how her detached demeanour keeps the other nannies in the park at bay, and I think we’re expected to feel a measure of sympathy (which is hard, knowing this woman we are supposed to feel sorry for butchered a couple of kids).

There are parts of the broader arc that work (Myriam and Paul take Louise with them on holiday, teach her to swim, and then, on returning, feel like they want to step back from her somewhat when she feels she has almost become a part of the family) and certain powerful scenes (Louise doesn’t like being wasteful so when Myriam throws a chicken away, Louise has the kids pick the bones of the bird absolutely free of meat – and then she cleans the bones and leaves the carcass on the dining room table when she leaves for the evening) but the actual shift from “here is a relationship between a married couple and their employee that appears to be going downhill” to “oh the employee has decided to murder their children” isn’t handled affectively. This reader, at the very least, didn’t buy it. Which won’t I’m sure, deter a great many people from reading it, and possibly raving about it, and some bright spark from trying to turn it into a movie sometime soon. But it does mean that we don’t feel inclined to encourage you to rush out there and pick up a copy for yourself.

Any Cop?: Not quite the Prix Goncourt of a read we expected. File this one under: disappointing would-be literary chiller. We’d rather steer you towards Sara Gran’s Come Closer or Matthew Weinstein’s Heather, the Totality.  

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