|Apr/May 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
Sam Taylor, Translator.
Faber. 2018. 207 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 33753 8.
The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.
From the first page of this book we know of the brutal and violent deaths of the two children, the failed suicide attempt of their nanny Louise, and the terrifying scene confronting their mother, Myriam, when she came home early from work. What we don't know is why it happened. And only as the events of the past are told do we get clues.
The great skill with which Leïla Slimani tells this story makes everything that happens seem almost normal. Almost, but not quite.
Myriam and Paul are a successful Parisian couple. Myriam was in her last year of law school when she became pregnant with Mila, but she went on to graduate. Paul's work in the music industry was going well. And, initially, they had the help of Paul's parents, although Myriam and her mother-in-law "never saw eye-to-eye" and Myriam resented her interfering ways. Then, one month before their second child was born, Paul's parents went on an extended holiday and didn't tell Paul until the last minute. There was some ill-feeling, so Myriam took on total responsibility for looking after the children.
Slimani writes convincingly of Myriam's increasing tiredness, and of the loss of independence and identity total immersion in a child-centered world involves. "With two children, everything became more complicated: shopping, bath-time, housework, visits to the doctor. The bills piled up. Myriam became gloomy." Myriam envies Paul's busy and interesting life, which takes up increasing amounts of his time, and she is angered by his lack of awareness of her distress. When she bumps into a friend from law-school and he subsequently offers her a job in his law firm, she knows that for the sake of her own sanity, and for the sake of her marriage, she must take it. The only problem is finding a suitable nanny.
Louise, small, neat, efficient and with an excellent reference, seems to be perfect for the job, and she quickly makes herself indispensible. The children adore her, the house is kept immaculate, she even cooks superb meals for Myriam and Paul and, when they entertain, their friends.
Yet, there are disturbing signs—only hints—that something about her is not quite right. Our first glimpse of Louise shows her in her apartment, looking out into the street and wondering about her neighbors: "With the tip of her fingernail she scratches the corner of the window. Even though she cleans it zealously twice a week, the glass always looks murky to her, covered in dust and black smears. Sometimes she wants to clean the panes until they shatter." She scratches until her nail breaks, and she has to put her hand in the shower to stop the bleeding. She cleans her shoes "with furious care" and is clearly obsessively tidy. But this is all to the good when she keeps Myriam and Paul's home spotless.
She also plays immersive games with the children, acting out the stories she tells them of princesses and ogres. The children love it. And her favorite game is hide-and-seek. Except that there are no rules, and sometimes she hides herself too well, choosing places where she can observe the children's distress and panic when they can't find her: Adam's sobs, because he is too young to understand she has not gone for good, and Mila's despairing pleading for her to return; their "hysterical joy" when she suddenly reappears.
Occasionally Slimani reveals information about Louis's past. A chapter devoted to her ex-husband Jacques tells of his abuse, his drinking and debts. Two chapters devoted to Stephanie, the daughter she never wanted, provide reasons for their estrangement. And there is mention of a hospital stay, which is not elaborated on until late in the book when the police investigate the murders.
Louise takes over more and more of the care of the children. The children love her, and she treats them as her own. She begins to sleep at the apartment so Myriam and Paul can go out and enjoy themselves, and they even take her on holiday with them, although this is not a complete success.
Some incidents do disturb Myriam and Paul, but the breaking point only comes when Louise retrieves from the garbage a chicken carcass Myriam has hidden there because there were still bits of chicken left on it and she knew Louise would disapprove of throwing it out. Louise re-assembles the chicken bones into a complete skeleton and leaves it in the middle of the kitchen table for Myriam to find. And Mila tells her mother, excitedly, how Louise taught them to eat the scraps of meat with their fingers and gave them big glasses of Fanta to drink "so that they wouldn't choke."
Paul and Myriam agree that Louise must go, but "she has embedded herself so deeply in their lives that it now seems impossible to remove her."
Louise, who now faces eviction from her own apartment and the loss of her job because the new baby she has obsessively willed Myriam to have is clearly not going to happen, becomes, by the last chapters of the book, more and more erratic in her care of the children. But nothing suggests her final acts.
Slimani's telling of this story is subtle, absorbing, and compelling, and the whole scenario is deeply disturbing in its reality. We share the lives and thoughts of Louise, Myriam, and (occasionally) Paul, and everything seems perfectly reasonable and understandable—and so easily possible that no one planning to hire a nanny should read this.
Leïla Slimani deservedly won the prestigious French Prix Goncourt for this book.