Book review: Lullaby by Leila Slimani
Cradle fall and all
This book is such an immersive experience, you find yourself exhaling long and deeply when you come to the last page. It’s the kind of book where you sit up as something strikes you; where you wince as you see what`s coming before the characters do. Where you sharply draw your breath in, aghast at happenings; where you flinch, grimace, sigh; where your heart skips a beat. That kind of immersive experience.
Lullaby isn’t the sort of tale that sets a pleasant scene, then gradually takes you through, to reveal the horrors at the heart of the tale.
Here, the story opens with police at the crime scene; the crime report is rendered passionlessly, carefully shorn of all emotion even as it touches on a truly horrific crime, the reaction of family to the crime and the detritus of things at the crime scene. The paramedics try to save the victims. Then they try to save `the other one.` And this is how you are introduced to the perpetrator of the crime.
So, the reader is shown exactly what happened at this tony Parisian apartment and then taken back in time to see how it all happened. This kind of flashback does not in any way take away from the suspense as it builds up or from the horror, even as the reader knows just how it all will end.
At the centre of the tale is the Masse family; Paul and Myriam, both urban professionals, and their little ones Mila and Adam. Work pressures force them to seek a nanny for the young ones. Myriam is of French-Moroccan descent but seems not quite comfortable in her skin; at any rate, she would rather not hire a North African nanny. And as the Masse couple ticks boxes in the list of what they don’t want in a nanny — woman with kids, illegal immigrants, too old, veiled, smokers — the reader realises that this is a layered novel.
While telling you what happens to the family, the story touches on what it is to be an immigrant, an outsider, the employer-employee imbalanced hierarchy, the miseries of deprived persons, a mother guilty about going back to work, a father slightly resentful of his wife`s success, a couple`s less- than- ideal fit at parenting, a landlord who prefers to rent to women only for convoluted reasons, a child`s deep unease at discerning something is not quite right with the adult who is taking care of her, a woman`s forever simmering cauldron of rage, even a police captain`s quest to understand why the perpetrator did what they did.
Slimani`s Paris is not the City of Light, rather it is a montage of the grimy, seedy, violent dark spots that dot the city.
The Masses strike lucky with the perfect nanny in Louise, a petite blonde woman. Clean, fastidious, prim and proper, she quickly carves a niche for herself in the family, has the little ones practically eating out of her hands, stretches her child-minding duties to include cooking cleaning and generally caring for the family.
They grow fond of Louise, react like purring cats when she sees to their every creature comfort. They give her stuff, they buy her the orange cakes she is so fond of, but they never really delve into her life away from them or show much interest in her problems.
On her part, as she too grows very fond of them, knows that this household is held together only by her, she starts to take small liberties like staying over in the apartment while they are away in the country, bathing in their bathroom after the showerhead breaks in her grotty flat, starts to feel she really is part of the family.
The reader watches how the perpetrator perennially stands at the edge of the catastrophic abyss and wonders with exasperation why the other characters don’t see it. When the mask falls, the story is visited by small, creepy horrors even as the reader braces for the big one.
The reveals into everyone`s character, their secret desires, fears, their meltdowns, and in one case, a secret life, are startling. The portraits of individual despair and doubt, as well as a passage about mothers and nannies who are regulars in the park, are masterly.
The scene with a chicken carcass and another of a game of hide- and- seek with the little ones, are so painted over with dread, you read it with a sense of choking. And oh, you’ll never again look at a ceramic kitchen knife in quite the same way as before.
This book won France’s most prestigious book award, the Prix Goncourt, as much a triumph for Slimani`s imagination as Sam Taylor`s unobtrusive translation from the French.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani/Faber& Faber Books/207 pages/Rs 499.
This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 21 Oct 2018.