Leïla Slimani, trans. by Sam Taylor, Faber and Faber, 2018
Dans le jardin de l’ogre
Leïla Slimani, Gallimard, 2014
When a writer punctures the face of her work with narrative absences, it is usually an invitation for the reader to fill them with interpretation. But in Leila Slimani’s novels, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The lives of her central characters, who are both socially and politically marginalised women, are characterised by absence, an absence which refuses to be resolved. Their extreme behaviour – variously transgressive, dangerous and criminal – places them beyond Slimani’s comprehension, though not beyond her compassion. The motives which underlie their behaviour remain impenetrable to the readers, forcing us to question the society in which these actions take place.
If her novels are about absence, then Slimani herself has become increasingly present in French public life. Born in 1981, in Rabat, Morocco, Slimani moved to Paris at the age of 17, where she now lives. Her psychological thriller, Lullaby (Chanson douce, or ‘sweet song’ in French), secured her the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016 (the seventh woman to do so in the Prize’s 112-year history), and has since gone on to sell over 600,000 copies in France. The book has replicated this success abroad: its English translation, by Sam Taylor, was released to a wave of critical praise and commercial success in January; it has been at the top of the UK’s fiction charts ever since. Although the first of Slimani’s novels to be translated into English, Lullaby is her second book, following her 2014 debut Dans le jardin de l’ogre (In the Ogre’s Garden), an intensely erotic novel, following the calamitous tailspin of Adele, a sex-addicted woman living in chic, suburban Paris (its English translation is marked for release in February 2019). More recently, Slimani used Lullaby’s successful Moroccan book tour to gather testimonials for her non-fiction work, Sexe et mensonges: La vie sexuelle au Maroc (Sex and Lies: Sexual Life in Morocco), a controversial work exploring sexual repression in the Arab world. It is Lullaby, however, which has grabbed most of the attention, with critics hailing it as the new Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, a popular sub-genre consisting of female-led psychological thrillers. Lullaby’s translation rights have been sold to 19 countries and counting; a movie is also in the making.
Lullaby is a compact novel, no more than 200 pages in length, but it is knife-sharp, with a truly terrifying premise. A professional, well-heeled Parisian couple employ Louise, a so-called ‘perfect nanny’, to care for their two children, Mila and infant Adam, and therefore enable their mother Myriam, a passionate and committed lawyer, to return to work. At first, Louise seems like a dream come true, the Mary Poppins from the couple’s prayers; she does the school run, tidies the house, cooks expansive and indulgent meals (her dinners, in particular, ‘become a tradition, an unmissable experience for all the couple’s friends’). Myriam sings Louise’s praises to her neighbours, to her friends, to anyone who will listen; she becomes a ‘legendary nanny, who seems to have sprung straight from the pages of a children’s book.’ But this rosy-rimmed, bourgeois idyll suddenly and stealthily devolves into blood-curdling tragedy, when one day Louise kills both Adam and Mila in cold-blood, with ‘a ceramic knife, extremely sharp…a sushi knife’ (Slimani’s prose is agonisingly precise, almost forensic in its detail), before taking this same knife to her own throat (she survives). Louise’s double murder is no spoiler, for Slimani writes it into the novel’s very first sentence: ‘The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.’ The remainder of Lullaby becomes a who-dunnit in which the question is not who, but why. It unpacks the events leading up to the murder in order to speculate about Louise’s possible motives.
Lullaby’s success in France has propelled Slimani to a position of political influence. During the 2017 presidential election, she eagerly voiced her support for Emmanuel Macron. Later, Macron (an ardent admirer of Slimani’s novels) offered her the role of Culture Minister, which she initially rejected, before she assumed the role of Francophone Affairs Minister in Macron’s cabinet a few months later. Slimani was chosen, Macron’s spokesperson said, as ‘part of a new generation that the president wants to highlight’: she represents ‘the open face of Francophonie [being French-speaking] to a multicultural world.’ She recently accompanied Macron to meet Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, as part of her brief to promote the French language abroad.
Slimani’s political engagement is front-and-centre in Lullaby. The novel traces the edges of the complex class and racial divides that cut through French society. Myriam is Franco-Moroccan, like Slimani, and her mixed heritage causes confusion at a Parisian nanny agency when she is mistaken for a nanny, rather than a bourgeois parent wanting to hire one. Slimani says this is because of an assumption that ‘if you are from Morocco or from Algeria, you’re going to be poor, you’re going to be a nanny, and you’re going to live in the suburbs of Paris’, whereas ‘If you are a boss, and you employ a nanny, you are a white woman, very successful.’ It is a ‘cliched way of looking at race’, Slimani says, but it is also how her characters view the world. Myriam, for instance, reproduces the racism she is also subjected to. She is wary of ‘immigrant solidarity’ when interviewing candidates to be her children’s nanny (a Filipino woman, a Moroccan woman, and ‘an undocumented immigrant from the Ivory Coast’), and she steadfastly rejects any of the North African applicants because she is concerned that ‘a tacit complicity and familiarity would grow between her and the nanny.’ Myriam, it seems, is caught at an intersection; she is at once bourgeois and immigrant; she has a foot on two different rungs of France’s social ladder. It becomes apparent that her acceptance of the former identity is to some extent predicated upon her rejection of the latter.
Louise occupies the opposite end of the social spectrum. She lives in poverty, perennially struggling to preclude the squalor of her situation from overwhelming her life: ‘she keeps going, come what may, like a mule, like a dog with its legs broken by cruel children.’ She rents a cramped one-room apartment on the outskirts of Paris from an exploitative landlord, who ‘bought studio flats in the Paris suburbs’ and ‘rents them out, at an exorbitant price, to people who have no alternative’, preying on the desperate, the vulnerable and the socially excluded. Her frustration fixates on a window which ‘always looks murky to her’, on the cracks and joints ‘filled with a greenish mould’, and she sleeps on a sofa bed that she carefully folds up every morning – the pretence of order amidst the unending dirt and grime. When Louise spots a man defecating outside the building in which she lives, she is overcome by a sudden fear that ‘she will have to leave even this vile apartment and that she will shit in the street, like an animal.’ She lives on the precipice of degradation and humiliation and this perpetual precarity, both sign and symptom of her poverty, isolates her from those around her. She is also a white nanny, a rare thing in bourgeois Paris, which marginalises Louise from her immigrant co-workers. When Louise takes the children to the local park where the other nannies congregate daily to complain of their employers, Louise adopts uppity and ‘haughty airs, a ludicrous grand dame pose.’ Slimani suggests that Louise has not only taken a job usually reserved for immigrant workers, but the prejudice and class antagonism that comes with it. She is a lonely, out-of-place woman who has fallen through France’s gaping social and racial divides.
Louise’s loneliness is desperate, and vividly drawn: ‘she walked in the street as if it were a cinema set and she were not there, an invisible spectator to the movements of mankind’, an eternal observer of life, a disempowered flâneuse. One of the novel’s distinguishing characteristics is its generosity with interiority, the care with which it peers beneath Louise’s ‘lost-waif expression’ to examine her churning inner life. Louise has been abused by her husband, left by her daughter and evicted by her landlord, so Myriam’s family inevitably becomes a ‘warm hiding place’ from the eager terrors of Louise’s existence, and the children in care fill the absence at the heart of her impoverished life. In an interview with The Guardian, Slimani suggests it is because of Louise’s all-consuming loneliness ‘that she commits this act, because she belongs to nowhere and no one. She is at the bottom of society, she is a woman and she is poor. She is no one.’ But her dependency on Mila and Adam, for the bills it pays, and for the purpose it gives her life, has a dangerous potential, because it is clear that the children matter far more to Louise than Louise matters to them.
Slimani’s first novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre, similarly foregrounds socially and politically marginalised characters – outcasts wandering the periphery of Parisian society. Social and racial prejudice cripple Louise until she becomes aware of both her absence from life and the absence of life around her; by contrast, there is no immediate reason why Adèle, the central character of Dans le jardin de l’ogre, an attractive, white and bourgeois Parisian, should suffer from the same strain of loneliness and social marginalisation. She’s a successful journalist, married to Richard, an equally successful surgeon, and they have children together. But Adèle also lives a ‘double life’, far outside the mainstream – she enters into multiple sexual encounters with strangers, escorts, random men she picks up from the streets, in a wild and addictive effort to liberate herself from the perceived constraints of her life. These encounters, cocaine-addled and champagne-fuelled, are fleeting, sordid and always joyless; she even asks one of the men, Mehdi, to ‘hurt’ her, to elicit from her ‘inhuman cries’, so that she wakes up smeared in vomit, blood and painful bruises. Slimani has described the novel as a depiction of a woman ‘losing control of her existence’, but it is clear that, as with Louise’s nannying, Adele believes her sex addiction offers momentary release from the isolation that plagues her more conventional life. Adele’s desires are contradictory: she does not divorce Richard because she craves familial life, but neither will she cease in her pursuit of spontaneous sexual hook-ups. Adele is eternally drawn towards what’s absent, but she is never satisfied by what she finds there.
Slimani’s characterisation of Adele and Louise, women overtaken by absence, is compassionate and compelling, but they are also shrouded in mystery and uncertainty; our access to their inner lives is limited to half-glimpses, half-told stories that leave little on the page and leave more to the imagination. Slimani often attempts to account for Adele’s sex addiction, linking it back to the ‘mix of fear and desire’ she felt when she first witnessed illicit sex in Montmartre as a child. It is also linked to the actions of her mother, who, when Adele was young, had the ‘habit of opening [Adele’s] mail and reading the letters she had received from admirers.’ The mystery surrounding Adele and the reason for her extreme behaviour creates an absence in the novel itself; its narrative is permeated with gaps and holes, as well as characters who navigate these gaps, in an attempt to explain Adele’s inexplicable behaviour. Like Adele, Louise flickers between the comprehensible and utterly inscrutable. The reasons for her murders seem at once crystal-clear and entirely illegible. Louise’s sadistic streak, her capacity for violence, is evident from the outset of the novel, when she draws out a childish game of hide-and-seek in order to relish Mila and Adam’s ‘anguish’ and ‘panic’, as if she is ‘studying the death throes of a fish she’s just caught’. It is further hinted in the chilling episode when she retrieves a rotting chicken carcass from the bin, before teaching the children to tear the dry meat off with their fingers, letting them drink ‘big glasses of Fanta as they ate, so they wouldn’t choke.’ But Louise’s motives behind the murder remain vague, elusive, and far outside of the reader’s reach. This is a ‘whodunnit’ in which the ‘who’ is clear, but the ‘why’ is not.
More than anything, Slimani is interested in the fundamental unknowability of her characters. Lullaby assembles its narrative from the recollections and reportage of onlookers, lawyers and detectives, who were present during the murders’ aftermath: there is Mrs Grinberg, a neighbour, who heard ‘the scream…the kind of scream heard during the war, in the trenches, in other worlds’, or Nina Dorval, a police officer, who stalks the crime scene for clues (‘the smell of soap and blood…the children’s clothes strewn across the floor’) and, after months of investigating the murders, believes that she has ‘plunged her hands into Louise’s rotting soul.’ Slimani, however, suggests that Louise’s ‘rotting soul’ is closed up like a fist; the novel points up the incomprehension and bafflement that engulfs the murder-scene, the inability to know why Louise decided to kill the children in her care, as well as our incapacity, as outsiders, onlookers and powerless readers, to enter and identify with Louise’s mind. This means Lullaby inevitably lacks narrative closure. Slimani’s description of the murders never reaches beyond the horrific (Mila’s ‘lungs…punctured, her head smashed violently against the blue chest of drawers’) to explain why this murder took place. A similar narrative absence concludes Dans le jardin de l’ogre. Adèle, after briefly giving up her sexual exploits, goes at them again, full-throttle this time. The novel leaves her alone, drunk and far away from home. Richard, her husband, holds out hope for her return. The absent ending traps Adele into the same loop of addiction, longing for the life that always eludes her, ricocheting between alternative existences until there’s nothing left of her.
Slimani’s troubling portraits of socially marginalised people caught engaging in extreme behaviour point to our inability to explain or account for the actions and lives of characters outside of the norm. Her removal of any definitive interpretation is a defiant act, one which denies the legitimacy of cruel social distinctions and stereotypes. But it also questions the novel form itself as a means of representation for marginal figures. Novelistic conventions, particularly the denouement, collapse when faced with these out-of-the-ordinary experiences. The reader is left without closure, unsatisfied by the narrative perhaps, with no option but to turn to the world of social and racial inequality which Slimani depicts, hopefully with a mind to making it a little bit kinder; a little bit more humane.