The novel is already exceedingly popular and Slimani does ask some provactive questions but overall Lullaby didn’t work for me.

opening remarks

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani is my first translated novel of the year (with a plan to read more than I did in 2017, hello Man Booker International Prize).  This short book got a great write up in The Guardian and won France’s top literary award in 2016. It’s, apparently, about a Nanny who goes bad.  Should be a laugh riot then.

knee-jerk observations

Yep, this is going to be a giggle-fest:

Unless I’ve missed something in the opening two chapters we are not informed of the colour of Myriam’s skin.  This small scene though, Myriam enquiring with a local agency for a Nanny, implies that she may not be white:
This clarifies things in regards to Myriam’s ethnicity but also highlights a cultural cringe, an almost rejection of her identity:
Lullaby is told from the third person point of view of Myriam, the mother who desires to go back to work after having two kids, and Louise, the Nanny she and her husband choose.  Paul, the husband, at the moment, has no voice in the novel other than the odd line of dialogue.  As the book alternates between the two women we are given the opportunity to compare and contrast.  They are both very good at their jobs.  Louise is described as a miracle worker, Myriam is viewed as a conscientious lawyer, first in, last out.  They have an obsessive attention to detail.

What’s child abuse to some is just a game of hide and seek to Louise:

In the first half of the novel we only get a few snippets of the book from Paul’s perspective.  Of course one of those snippets involves Paul objectifying Louise.  There’s an almost palpable sense of relief that he doesn’t find her fuckable:
Slimani’s depiction of Paul is not very flattering.  On the rare occasions he pops into narrative it’s generally to act like an arse. His reaction here to Louise putting makeup on Mila (giving her the works) is over the top:
At the moment I can’t help but wonder whether this book is about the failure of feminism.  Myriam’s decision to go back to work, rather than be applauded, is framed as the catalyst for all the shit that happens thereafter.  It’s not just that her kids would be alive if she stayed at home but that she is constantly being critiqued by her husband, friends and mother-in-law for working so hard, for not spending enough time with her children.  And, to be fair, Myriam is barely around, up at the crack of dawn and back home after midnight.  She has handed over maternal responsibility to the Nanny.  But if the book is arguing that feminism has undermined what it is to be a mother by encouraging women to go back to work, well then that’s some reactionary shit.  I’m hoping Slimani will subvert this but we know the kids die and Myriam’s portrayal as a workaholic only feeds into my suspicions.

The portrayal of Louise supports the anti-feminist case.  She’s a women with next to no agency (unless you count murdering children).  Her upbringing, as described below, was clearly miserable.  Her husband (now dead) was an abusive arse, her daughter has vanished (deliberately, she wasn’t kidnapped) and the only thing that gives Louise purpose is caring for Mila and Adam.  Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to work as a Nanny or au-pair, but when you’ve been depicted as an empty shell of a person (regularly described as a doll as if to suggest you’re not real) it’s hard to find anything feminist or empowering in your obsession in the welfare of another woman’s children:

It may just be me but when your Nanny starts leaving chicken carcasses around – sending a passive aggressive message that food should never be wasted – it might be time to consider another Nanny:
The novel’s strongest moments are when Slimani observes and comments on the multicultural mix of Nannies in French society.  Part of that is the racist attitudes of the wealthy, rejecting Nannies of a particular nationality because they don’t trust black people or Arabs or, in the case of Myriam, don’t want to be reminded of their own cultural identity.  And part of it, as suggested by the passage below, is the fleeting effect these Nannies have on the children:
There’s another way to read this novel – other than to say that it’s an anti-feminist diatribe aimed at the working mother – and that is it’s an anti-capitalist diatribe against the wealthy who, as they strive to maintain their lifestyle, put the responsibility of their children in the hands of a generally poor stranger.  If this novel achieves anything it’s highlighting the economic divide in French society:

The Gist Of It

I speculated above as to whether Lullaby is an attack on feminism or an attack on capitalism.  The question assumes Slimani is looking to lay blame.  How else though to approach a novel that begins with the brutal death of two children, two children who would still be alive if Myriam had stayed home?

Aida Edemariam, whose ecstatic review got me interested in the novel in the first place, says that, Lullaby “is a political book about emotional work, about women and children and their costs and losses.”  Her review suggests that Slimani is looking to push buttons and provoke discussion on difficult topics.  That’s fine but I found the tone of the novel to be less provocative and more didactic.  Given that Myriam decides to go back to work because the gloss of motherhood has worn off and given her work as a lawyer has her working extraordinarily long hours and given she finds it difficult attending her own daughter’s birthday party and given she keeps Louise on after the fastidiously neat Nanny leaves a chicken carcass on the kitchen counter, a passive aggressive comment on wasting food, it’s hard not to blame Myriam for the death of her children, for delegating the task of motherhood to someone else.  I say Myriam is to blame and not Paul because other than the odd over the top outburst he’s sidelined.  This is a book structured around the perspectives of its female protagonists Myriam and Louise and as such it feels like the blame, if blame is to be handed out, rests either with the obsessed Nanny or the mother who gave up on motherhood.  This is, possibly, an unfair reading of the book.  Paul’s lack of presence may actually be Slimani’s loudest statement, that if he had been willing to share tasks and responsibilities with Myriam a Nanny may not have been needed.  Then there’s the economic and power dynamics at play.  Edemariam notes that Louise is white, which is a powerful statement on its own given as the novel clearly depicts, most Nannies are immigrants and people of colour (and for that matter so is Myriam).

In the end I struggled with this Lullaby.  Structurally, starting with the death of the children didn’t work for me.  Maybe it would have if there was any depth to Louise but Slimani’s attempt to not make Louise a psychopath meant that she becomes a shell of a person with confused motivations.  I know, I know, sometimes we can’t know why a person does something so awful, but Louise never felt more than a bland cipher, a means to convey a message.

Justifiably this novel will provoke discussion and I’m sure others will be more open to the questions raised than I was.  But I couldn’t help but feel that this was just another book blaming mothers for wanting to have a career and for taking that blame out on their children.