Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Psychological mystery set in Paris – the Mary Poppins of Paris
25th January 2018
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, psychological mystery set in Paris. Translated by Sam Taylor.
Lullaby is a book that I read avidly cover to cover. It is tightly and skilfully plotted, but every parent’s nightmare. It is inspired by true stories of killer caregivers.
It was originally published in France as “Chanson Douce” and won the Prix Goncourt.
One of the stunning elements of the book is how the translator keeps a sense of the French language, in which it was originally written. It is perfect English yet somehow you can hear the French reverberating in the wings. That is the sign of a gifted translator. There is certainly Parisian flair to the book, and the city itself gets a good look-in.
Much of the story is set at the Massé family apartment at Rue d’Hauteville, in the 10th Arrondissement, not far from the Gare de l’Est. The novel opens with the scene of devastation, where small daughter Mila and even younger son Adam – the baby – have been attacked by the nanny. The nanny is Louise. The first sentence in the book is: “The baby is dead” which is a shocker of an opener.
The novel charts the lead-up to these terrible events. Myriam and Paul Massé already have a young daughter, Mila when Myriam falls pregnant once again. After Adam’s birth her rising star of being a solicitor is waning, and so is her mental health. After a little research they find Louise, who seems to be the perfect nanny for their children. She comes with glowing references from her previous family, the Rouviers, who credit her with being an exceptional nanny.
Louise is a slight, blonde woman with carefully applied make-up, delicate hands tipped with nail polish. She is soon wearing her dress with the Peter Pan collar, a trademark almost, gradually morphing into the Mary Poppins of Paris. The Massés can’t speak highly enough of her amongst their friends. They even show off about how they have bagged such an all round competent carer for their children. Nothing is too much trouble, everything Louise turns her hand to is marvellous, the food she cooks for the family is so delicious and the children seem so attached to her creative care of them. It seems too good to be true. And of course we know from the outset that it is. She is invisible and indispensable.
This is a novel that has many levels. The notion of self respect is just one feature. It is well known that if people have little respect for themselves, then others around are unlikely to be respectful of them. Louise has little self respect. Her husband was abusive, died and left her in massive debt. She needs to be needed and in order to do this she ingratiates herself into the Massé family, she builds her metaphorical nest in the middle of their home life, she is an embedded tick who becomes indispensable to them. There comes a point when she is there before they wake up, and she is willing to stay beyond the call of duty in the evenings.
However, over-functioning at this level crosses a line, and it becomes gradually distasteful to those around. The more Myriam and Paul pull away, the more Louise embeds herself, and the stronger their rejection becomes. Soon it becomes clear that they take Louise for granted, making up for the guilt feelings by buying her small gifts. Exploitation becomes the nature of their relationship.
The boundaries of employer and employee were blurred long ago, friendship blossomed, the Massés even took Louise on holiday. But the three adults were never equals and could never be. The notion of control and power are on a knife edge, tempers can snap in just a second. Myriam largely calls the tune, but Louise, too, has her own form of control.
Factor in Louise’s “delirious melancholia”, diagnosed way back, and you have a simmering pot of tensions that will inevitably come to the boil.
The novel also alights on the problems of integration between the locals and those of other ethnicities, which just adds to the pressure-cooker feel of the novel.
If you can deal with the murder of children in fiction, then this is a gripping, psychologically astute and thoughtfully constructed book that will keep you hooked in until the end. Recommended.
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In this video, Leïla talks about the book:
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