Leïla Slimani’s best-selling novel Lullaby is a The Hand That Rocks The Cradle-style creepy thriller about a seemingly perfect Parisian nanny who murders her charges. The very first paragraph in the book describes the crime in gruesome detail:
The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. She’d fought like a wild animal. They found signs of a struggle, bits of skin under her soft fingernails. On the way to the hospital she was agitated, her body shaken by convulsions. Eyes bulging, she seemed to be gasping for air. Her throat was filled with blood.
Translated from the Prix Goncourt-winning original French, the narrative then dives into a description of the months leading up to the children’s death.
Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, loves her young children but is desperate to get away from the monotony of her home life and back to her promising law career. Her husband, Paul, is in the music business and wants to be able to have his children and his old life, too.
Enter Louise – the perfect nanny who quickly whips their small apartment and family into shape, to the envy of all of Myriam and Paul’s friend.
But Louise has her own deep-seated problems – both financial and emotional. As their lives become more and more intertwined things start to unravel.
Lullaby offers no solutions but, through a compelling and horrifying narrative, provides a stark commentary on the social issues of our time.
The working poor, who are expected to make the lives of the wealthy easier but are never permitted to share those lives fully. Often immigrants but also – as in Louise’s case – native French, the working poor are expected to subvert or abandon their own lives to act as dehumanised servants to others.
The financial gulf between employer and employee shows its ugly self when Paul and Myriam make fun of Louise’s habit of carefully preserving every morsel of leftover food:
Paul and Myriam joke about this. This mania of Louise’s, this phobia of throwing away food, makes them laugh at first. The nanny scrapes out the last morsels from jam jars; she makes the children lick out their pots of yoghurt. Her employers find this ludicrous and touching.
Who should care for our children? Louise loves the children and cares for them as though they were her own. And yet, she is merely a servant.
She devotes dozens more hours than she is required to spend with the children, to ensure that Myriam and Paul can work as many hours as they want to. And yet, her position is precarious – Louise can be fired at a moment’s notice, discarded from her integral position in the children’s lives.
The all-consuming nature of servitude has destroyed the life of Louise’s own estranged daughter, Stéphanie. Forced to endure holidays with Louise’s young charges, but looked down upon by the host parents and forbidden from playing with the other children. Neglected by her own mother in favour of the children she’s paid to care for, Stéphanie is left emotionally warped and scarred.
Lullaby is a truly disturbing insight into what can go wrong when growing inequality is left unchecked and properly paid, accredited and supervised child care isn’t available for parents who want – or need – to return to the paid workforce.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links