Shows how hard it is to pull off a literary thriller…

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

Translated by Sam Taylor

 

 

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.

 

This French bestseller has such a killer first line – they put it on the front cover. You’re left with no doubt that ‘The Perfect Nanny‘ (as this book has been titled in the US, but without the first line on the front cover), is the one whodunnit from the outset.  It’s an audacious beginning, but it does hook the reader immediately, and we read on to find out why she did it.  Moroccan-born author Leïla Slimani has also been in the news with Président Macron choosing her to be his literary ambassador so her book having won the Prix Goncourt is guaranteed even bigger sales worldwide.

However reviews have been mixed…

Harriet, reviewing it for Shiny here, loved it, as did Eric at Lonesome Reader here. Whereas Kim at Reading Matters here and Tony at Tony’s Book World here didn’t. For every positive review I’ve seen, I’ve read one that wasn’t as enthusiastic. Having bought a copy of the book after reading Harriet’s review, I was very keen to see which camp I’d fall into!

Back to the book…

Myriam and Paul have two children and live in a small but perfectly formed flat in one of Paris’s posher arondissements.  Myriam, a lawyer, slightly desperate from several years staying at home with their young family decides to return to work. There’s no question of a nursery – they need a nanny.  They don’t use an agency, they advertise and are amazed when they find Louise, a slim, white woman, a widow with a grown-up daughter, whom the children instantly take to, as do they.

“My nanny is a miracle-worker.” That is what Myriam says when she describes Louise’s sudden entrance into their lives. …

Of course, Louise’s wages are a burden on the family budget, but Paul no longer complains about that. In a few weeks, Louise’s presence has become indispensable. …

When Myrian gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place. Louise arouses and fulfils the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myrian guiltily nurses.

In addition to looking after the children, Louise cooks, cleans and makes their small apartment seem bigger with her tidying and rearranging. She insinuates herself into their lives so successfully, that Myrian and Paul begin to take her for granted. The author plays with our sympathies – Myriam and Paul are privileged, bourgeois, and frankly not very likeable for the most part – but we know the awful thing that’s to come for them already, but it’s hard to bond with Louise when in their milieu.

This novel really brings out the differences between the (educated) haves and the have-nots in Parisian society.  When she leaves Myriam and Paul’s chic abode, Louise must travel to a seedy bedsit on the Paris outskirts. She’s poor, but hides it very well from her employers. She has no acquaintances other than Wafa, another nanny who makes befriending Louise, the only white nanny in the park, a challenge. Her situation gradually worsens, but that on its own is only a part of the picture that builds up of Louise’s life and state of mind.

All the while, we’re looking for the cracks to appear, what is it that makes Louise snap and commit the horrific act?

So, which camp did I fall into, and why?

I love a well-written psychological thriller. Some of the best I’ve read in recent years have all been French – Pascal Garnier and Frédéric Dard‘s claustrophobic novellas and Pierre Lemaitre’s marvelously twisted and gory Verhoeven Trilogy.  All of these are immaculately plotted and give the reader a real sense of relief when closure arrives.  They combine action, detection, psychological drama in fast-moving character-driven plots.  Lullaby, while possessing the basic promise of a psychological drama, was unlike any of these – I felt it was trying too hard to be literary at the same time, and because of this, didn’t pull off the ‘thrilleryness’ needed.

Slight spoiler alert

I also tend to dislike most whydunnits. Pierre Lemaitre’s recent novel Three Days and a Life was one such, and it was less successful for me because of that – but it did achieve something that Lullaby lacks – closure. Lullaby never definitively gives us this, leaving an unsavoury feeling behind and loads of questions about motivation as other reviewers have picked up on.

End of Spoiler Alert

Lastly there’s the prose. It jumps about between first and third person which was irritating, and I didn’t find the text particularly riveting to read – whether this is the original or the translation isn’t clear. I’ve read Sam Taylor’s translation of HHhH but that book irritated the hell out of me, however I really enjoyed Taylor’s own novel The Island at the End of the World, so I’m no clearer on that score. In conclusion, for me Lullaby was OK, but not special – so I fall on the side of the disappointed. (6.5/10).


Source: Own copy

Leila Slimani, Lullaby trans Sam Taylor (Faber, 2018) flapped paperback, 208 pages.

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16 thoughts on “Shows how hard it is to pull off a literary thriller…

  1. Thanks for the link. I’ve thought more about this book since reading it and I think I have now figured out Louise’s motivation, but I didn’t like the prose style (pedestrian, plodding) and the way in which the author couldn’t make up her mind as to whether the book was a psychological thriller or a domestic literary novel.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think I have a pivotal moment in mind for Louise – but I won’t spoil it here. It definitely couldn’t make up its mind – Gone Girl is quoted on the back cover which kind of sets the tone for something it isn’t.

  2. I enjoyed Lullaby though it didn’t quite hit the high that the hype had led me to expect. Like you I found the style a little bit slow and flat in places though in fairness I thought that worked better at the end of the book than it did for the first half of it. Overall I think I got into the family dynamics and relationships between the family and Louise. But psychological thriller it wasn’t – even as a whydunnit, while better than Le Maitre’s Three Days, it was enjoyable but not the world shattering book that the hype had suggested!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Three Days really disappointed after having read all his others. I do think Whydunnits need a reveal though…

  3. You see, I went in not thinking of it as a thriller at all, so it worked better for me. I think the deliberately unadorned style works in French but the translation makes it sound flat and pedestrian.

  4. I wonder if this book is yet another example of hype raising expectations. I haven’t read it but several bloggers whose opinion I respect, like you, seem to have been left a bit puzzled as to what all the brouhaha is about. That Macron appointment was a gift to publicists!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She did the family drama well – but it felt like it was meant to be a thriller, which was so confusing.

  5. A really interesting review. I’ve just borrowed this from the library and will note not to read it in ‘thriller’ mindset! Whatever the merits of HHhH, I thought the translation was excellent (insofar as I can assess that without being able to read any French – but the prose was outstanding) so I’d find it difficult to blame the translator.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The translation of HHhH was undoubtedly excellent – and it certainly got me wound up about that book! I’m sure I’ve read more books translated by Taylor and had no problems with them either, but couldn’t find them to compare for this post.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Gone Girl was great unlike all the Girl clones that followed. Despite the awful crime, Lullaby isn’t a true psychological thriller perhaps which is why it’s confusing, The hype doesn’t help.

  6. I wouldn’t expect a Prix Goncourt to be given to a thriller, so I’ve been holding off deciding whether to read this one and was surprised to see it being packaged as a kind of bestseller, and being read by a more general audience, if it had come in the regular plain French packaging without the testimonials or expectations, it may have been perceived differently.

    I’ll probably stick with reading the French titles I’m recommended by my French reading friends, the one that won the Prix Goncourt lycéen in 2017 Petit Pays was excellent and will be out in June in English, it doesn’t try to be anything else, so hopefully it’ll find an appreciative audience in English, it will be called A Small Country by Gael Faye.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ll look out for that Claire. I’m sure that if not hyped as a thriller, it would be perceived differently, as many of those who’ve enjoyed it have found.

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