During my daily ferreting of news about new books, I stumbled across Leila Slimani’s Lullaby (French original Chanson Douce – literally means “soft song”; translation by Sam Taylor). The Guardian called it a “sublime thriller” and some reviews even made references to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw (a story that still gives me the chills). Slimani won the prestigious French literary prize – Prox Goncourt for this book.
The novel is set in Paris and is about a young family including two children. When the mother, Myriam decides to get back to rebuilding her career, they hire a nanny, Louise. Louise proves to be godsend – the chaotic house is suddenly transformed to a neat place; there’s always delicious food on the stove; the children no longer have tantrums – it’s as if Louise has a magic wand. And then, as this co-dependent relationship becomes complex, things spiral out of control.
Unlike traditional thrillers where information is withheld from the reader and drip-fed to increase tension, Lullaby opens to the crime scene – “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.” The opening chapter is clinical, graphical and quite like that dreaded first splash of ice cold water when you turn on the shower. You are numbed by the shock; your macabre curiosity is aroused - you want to know what led to this.
We are then led into Myriam and Paul’s world – a world familiar to any contemporary modern family. The cramped urban living spaces; the eternal struggle of a new mother to somehow gain that equilibrium where she is more than just her biological and social role; the debris of everyday life that requires constant cleaning; the sheer exhaustion of parenting. Into this world enters the petite, neat, and somewhat weird Louise. Order is restored; the mother grows wings and that ever-elusive equilibrium is now established firmly it seems.
But who is this Louise? Who is this woman who gives so much to others’ children; who is always on time, before time, immaculate and never speaks a word out of turn? An omniscient narrator allows the reader into Louise’s barren, frigid world. But Myriam and Paul, the employers do not know what the reader knows, and in a way, they don’t want to know either. No one likes to feel guilty about the inherent inequalities in our societies. But they are decent folks, Myriam and Paul. They try to look beyond this class barrier and treat Louise more like family. Louise is invited to stay back for dinner parties with the couple’s friends. They toast her culinary skills. They take her on a holiday where Paul teaches her to swim. Perhaps Louise felt she was now a part of something; like joining a constellation – the three of them and the children. And as she asserts her stubborn will, she feels that sense of bonding slip away. You see, nothing can really erase the line that separates the Louises of the world from the Myriams. Louise, though much needed like a good employee, is beneath them, and will always be.
This strange symbiotic relationship forces us to consider the weird position women find ourselves in – self-awareness and feminism, though admirable, are heavy burdens to bear. We can never escape judgements and self-flagellation. We are self-aware of our potential as individuals, as citizens. This is often in loggerheads with our biological roles and whatever choices we make, the judgement is harsh and ruthless. Myriam feels depressed, guilty, and even goes on lunatic mode when her sharp lawyer mind must be shut away and erased to deal with diapers and baby puke. She is not a domestic goddess, and she’s constantly stressed about her chaotic house, her unmanageable children, her lack of skills in the kitchen. So when Louise comes into their lives, Myriam, against the very grain of her feminist beliefs, is ironically apologising all the time for her inability to do all these “womanly” chores, which Louise seems to take over selflessly, without even being asked. You can’t help but wonder about Paul who does not face these conflicts – he is supportive sure, but not in a million years will he lose sleep over dusty surfaces or burnt toast. And so, the woman of the house must necessarily turn to another woman for help.
The power struggles are subtle – Myriam must now tow the line about housekeeping rules as laid out by Louise. Louise on the other hand is terrified of her future – what after the children grow up? Where will she go now that she’s “built a nest” in their house? Can she induce Paul and Myriam to have another baby?
As the reader gets to know more details about Louise’s life, unbeknown to her employers, a sense of foreboding rises even though you know the worst has already happened, and you are reading all this in retrospect.
The narration is in present tense and it renders a sense of breathless urgency as we hurl towards the day of the disaster. The unravelling of Louise is shown to us very factually, almost dispassionately. We are at once sympathetic to her desperate financial and personal situation, yet we recoil at her machinations.
The psychological terror rarely boils over like in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. In Lullaby, the terror is a muted background noise that comes into painful and acute high pitch in specific scenes, only to fade away quickly. This leaves the reader terrified, especially if one is a parent – and am sure many would’ve kept the book aside. Perhaps it is more terrifying because you realise the hapless victims of these adult choices are children. They are voiceless in their innocence and it cuts you. Besides, the whole plot is too close to reality.
I suppose there are criticisms to this domestic noir plot - it once again makes the women the guilty party whilst letting the man go scot free after his job and interests.
Whatever is your view, it is a book that makes you contemplate on current discourses of gender and class roles. I’d love to see this on the big screen.
© Sumana Khan - 2018