The latest book from the Mumsnet Book Club – Lullaby by Leïla Slimani – will creep under your skin and it will shake you to your core. I have loved the selection of novels from the Mumsnet Book Club; all have been beautifully written and constructed, and Lullaby is no exception. However, this novel is no easy read.
A Shocking Start
Lullaby opens with the line
“The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds”.
That simple yet devastating sentence violently smacked me awake and left me feeling sick with dread. I realised very quickly that this was not going to be some light bedtime reading, unlike the previous book – Why Mummy Swears by Gill Sims. When I started this novel I wasn’t sure how I would find it. Now I’ve finished the novel I am still reeling and that’s because of the subject matter. I’m afraid to admit that I am that person who skips newspaper articles where children have been murdered and I can’t watch TV dramas about missing children. I am a coward and I will do anything to avoid reading or watching anything that involves cruelty towards children. Selfish? Maybe. However, I think that this is probably a natural reaction once you have had children. You look at your own children and struggle to fathom how anyone could want to harm such innocence.
I found the opening line of the novel, those two short sentences, abhorrent.They left me feeling repulsed. This was not going to be a book I would binge on, it would be a book that I needed to read slowly and deliberately. Yet, despite the subject matter I found myself gripped, I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment. I wanted to know why the children had been killed. I needed to make sense of it.
A Publishing Sensation
This book has been a publishing sensation and there are already talks of a film being made. It’s easy to see why this tense thriller has been lauded so much, it’s a work of art. It might not be to everyone’s taste but it is still a masterpiece. The construction of the novel and the unpicking of the central characters is done in a very languid way. Even though you know how it ends, even though you know the children will die, you, as the reader, feel like you are in a race against time. Towards the end you have the sense that the novel is speeding up at a terrifying pace, and this is reflected in everything frantically unravelling. You want to shake the children’s parents awake, you want someone to notice the nanny.
This thriller examines the contradictions of motherhood; the burden of guilt and the overwhelming love for your children and how being a parent can feel stifling. At the centre of the novel is Myriam and Paul. They are a successful Parisian couple. Paul works in the music industry and, at first, Myriam is a stay-at-home mum. However, she struggles with this role, finding herself losing her identity and sense of self. Then a friend comes along and offers Myriam a job at his law firm causing excitement about going to work again.
She’s No Mary Poppins
This is where the nanny – Louise – comes along. At first she seems to be like a modern day Mary Poppins character. Yet, we know that this isn’t going to end well. I found this incredibly hard because I found myself reading between the lines, constantly analysing Louise and willing Paul and Myriam to realise that the nanny wasn’t as she seemed.
At first Louise seems to be the family’s saviour. She turns the flat into a homely and warm space, cooks amazing food, does all of the cleaning and still manages to entertain the children. Yet, despite this supposed picture of tranquility, there are still snippets of poison; revealing and disturbing actions from the nanny. A game of hide and seek takes on a sinister air when you learn that Louise likes to terrify the children by refusing to come out from her hiding place. The description of the game is horrifying – “She watches them as if she’s studying the death throes of a fish she’s just caught….The fish that has no chance of surviving” It neatly reminds us of the fate of the children and how they had no chance of surviving. Despite all of these hints and stirrings of something not being quite right, Myriam chooses to ignore them. She pushes away the alarming behaviour of the nanny because she has come to rely on her.
By the end of this novel, I found myself revolted by the nanny but also a little by Myriam and Paul. They had entrusted the care of their children to this nanny who clearly wasn’t of sound mind. They could have stopped the murders, couldn’t they? Everything about this novel is very precise. The details and the observations are minute. There is the revolting description of the chicken carcass left on the kitchen table for Myriam to find. It almost feels like Louise is marking her territory and waving a warning flag –
“Myriam sees the empty insides of the thorax, dark and bloodless. No meat remains, no organs, nothing on this skeleton that could rot, and yet it seems to Myriam that it is a putrescent carcass, a vile corpse that is festering and decaying before her eyes”.
This terrifying description is a brilliant metaphor because Myriam could also be describing the nanny – Louise. It could also be foreshadowing the sad fate of the children. Lullaby unfurls itself like a silvery spider’s web and at the centre of it is Louise, trapping everyone.
This is a very brutal and, at times, a madly macabre novel. It isn’t just an examination of modern parenting, it also examines economic circumstances. Louise is at a great disadvantage because she has no money. She is constantly living hand to mouth. She owes money and can’t afford to pay her rent. Those circumstances certainly contribute to her unravelling mind. We also get flashes of Louise’s past. Her marriage to a man who left her in debt, domestic violence, and a daughter who she almost aborted and who she can’t seem to love. This is a novel that examines social, and economic themes but at its heart is a question of morality. We want to understand the nanny, Louise. We want to know why she did it. We want to know if she understood the difference between right and wrong. However, it’s also a question of Myriam and Paul’s morals. Were they selfish? Should they have done something? Are they victims or did they have a part to play too – did they not realise how distressed the nanny was and what a deprived life she was living? Sadly, often like real life, you finish the novel with more questions. We never really get to know Louise. It seems that she is very adept at keeping everyone locked tightly out.
In Two Minds
As I type this review, I am still in two minds about it. It was a book that took me longer to read than usual, because I found it so disturbing. However, is it that reaction what makes this book a must-read? I believe that any sort of artwork should provoke a strong emotional reaction. Reading this novel brought to mind the work of Damian Hirst. Many people don’t understand his work. We went and saw some of his exhibitions in 2012 at Tate Modern and there was one with a cow’s head and maggots. It repulsed me and I had to leave the room because I felt like I was going to vomit. The same can be said for Tracey Emin and the unmade bed. I had read many scathing remarks about that exhibition, yet when I saw it I felt overwhelmingly sad and couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards. That’s what makes them great artists. I might not enjoy it, it might challenge me but ultimately it provoked a strong emotional reaction, it confronts me. The same can be said for Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, this was a jarring and emotionally fraught read that forced me to think.
Do not read Lullaby unless you are prepared to be disturbed. This novel is dark but also delicious; the prose is exquisite, it is a compelling read. I have a feeling that I will still be mulling this book over for the next couple of months.
Lullaby is a heartbreaking read that will haunt you.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani is available to order from Amazon.
Disclaimer – please be aware that I was gifted this novel as I am working with the Mumsnet Book Club. However, all words, opinions and images are my own.