The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.
When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite and devoted woman who sings to their children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint and is able to host enviable birthday parties.
The couple and nanny become more dependent on each other. But as jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase, Myriam and Paul’s idyllic tableau is shattered…
Lullaby begins with the above quote, and so the ending won’t come as a surprise to the reader, but it’s the path that the characters follow that is of particular interest in this novel. What happened, that resulted in the death of a baby? Is it the nanny, or is there another explanation that we’re not aware of from the opening chapter? This is a slim volume at some 220 odd pages, and yet Slimani manages to pack a great deal into this fantastic read – so much so that I read it over two nights, with only real life getting in the way of this being read cover to cover in a single sitting.
From this opening chapter, the novel moves back in time to the point at which Myriam decides to hire a nanny to look after her two children so that she can return to work. Her husband, Paul, isn’t thrilled at this prospect, but he goes along with it. Following a number of interviews, they hire Louise, and you can see why they are immediately taken with her – she is punctual, polite, and the children form an immediate connection with her. And even as she starts to work for the Massés, she continues to exceed their expectations – cleaning the house, tidying, even cooking for dinner parties they decide to host. She seems too good to be true, and quickly becomes indispensable.
As I read Lullaby, I was surprised at how much sympathy I felt for Louise. The reader is given insights into her life before she started working for Myriam and Paul, and it’s clear that she has suffered a great deal of unhappiness, with a wayward daughter resulting from an unhappy marriage, and a whole host of debts left to her by her late husband, and there are signs that she is more fragile than she lets on. Myriam and Paul make no attempt to really get to know the person behind Louise’s impeccable façade, and whilst they are never openly rude to her, I did feel that they treated her as a second-class citizen at times, even as they clapped themselves on the back for their selfless kindness and generosity. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they might have seen the cracks starting to form had they bothered to look a little closer.
Whilst I didn’t like the way in which Louise is treated by the Massés, I did also feel sympathy for Myriam, who wanted to continue her career rather than being a stay at home mum. And whilst Paul doesn’t actively try to stop her or to persuade her not to work, it’s clear that he isn’t entirely happy with the situation, although he does respect her decision. Not that she really gave him a choice in the matter, and I did like her wilfulness in pursuing her own goals.
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Lullaby, I think that the ending of the novel may put a few readers off. No spoilers, of course, but it is a little… abrupt, and I think that those readers who like a very clear explanation as to the how and why may be left wanting, although it’s not completely ambiguous.
Lullaby was published in the UK by Faber & Faber earlier this month and is available in eBook and paperback now.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐