A dark tale: Leïla Slimani's Lullaby taps into every parent's worst nightmare

A dark tale: Leïla Slimani's Lullaby taps into every parent's worst nightmare
Book Club: The French bestseller, translated into English, fails to live up to its compelling premise, lacking the insight needed to make it an exceptional read, reviews Amena Ravat.
5 min read
10 January, 2019
Lullaby is a novel by French author Leïla Slimani [Amena Ravat]

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

Probably, the most eye-opening and chilling first lines you will ever read. We know from the very first pages of Leïla Slimani's novel, Lullaby, that the parents are not responsible for this heinous act. The nanny is. The tale unfolds within the rest of the read as to how and why the worst could possibly happen.

The plot is a simple one. Myriam and Paul are an upper middle-class couple living in a Parisian apartment with their two children, Mila and Adam. Myriam is bored with being a stay at home and returns to work as a criminal lawyer.

Thus, we meet Louise, their nanny. She comes across as the perfect candidate. Her references check out. She presents well. Myriam appears so desperate she hands Louise the job. The book deals with the murder of the two children by the nanny. It was inspired by a true story in 2012, where two children were murdered by their nanny in New York.

My first challenge with the novel is the portrayal of Myriam, the mother, who resents her role as a parent and clearly does not want to be a stay-at-home mum.

As a mother myself, I could relate to her thoughts about her career and how hard she had worked. I struggled, however, with the feeling of regret at having worked so hard to get a degree, only to not be able to use it because she has children. Her management of the children's behaviour was also noticeable, for example, grabbing Mila despite her screaming rather than attempting to somewhat manage that behaviour in another way. It's almost as if the children are a burden, something she has to "do."

The book is told in the third person from multiple points of view. The reader sees what Myriam and Paul do not – how dysfunctional Louise is, her violent marriage, her neglectful upbringing, how no-one has ever cooked her a meal, her poor mental health as well as her non-existent relationship with her own daughter. We are also reminded about what Louise has done with the perspective of various people who were questioned by the police, which I thought was very well done.

All the characters in the book are odd and flawed in some way or another, so much so, that I struggled to connect with any of them.

The book felt like a character study and almost read like a piece of non-fiction, rather than a story with a lead up to the main event. I wanted more depth. However, this may be due to the fact that it is a translated work, so it may better in French.

I could not understand how debilitated Myriam felt as a mother and wanted more in terms of what was triggering her thoughts. I also wanted to know more about her background, her marriage to Paul, how they function as a couple, what makes them tick. But not only her, both Paul and Louise too. There was no depth to them either. It felt dry and like the glue was missing from the words on the page.

We have snapshots and glimpses of Louise's upbringing, what it was like for her to be a mother herself, her domestically abusive marriage. When she is physically abusive and almost acts like she is possessed towards her own daughter, we do get a certain level of understanding as to how fragile and broken she is but this feels very superficial, on the surface.

The book is described as a psychological thriller, a page-turner. Unfortunately, I didn't think this was the case. It failed to answer a lot of questions for me

As a reader we know she must be mentally unhinged to have committed the crime. The problem for me was there is no meat on the bone and nothing is fully fleshed out, despite the atmosphere being oppressive a lot of the time.

It's a fairly quick, easy read and the language is not difficult to understand. The chapters are not numbered and there is the occasional title. But the writing is very raw and direct, deliberately making the reader feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic at times.

Initially, when life is perfect with Louise and she effortlessly intertwines herself in the family, you just know that it can't last forever. You almost feel it all veering towards the end of a cliff.

The book is described as a psychological thriller, a page-turner. Unfortunately, I didn't think this was the case. It failed to answer a lot of questions for me.

The premise is compelling, but ultimately it doesn't live up to it and lacks the insight needed to make it an exceptional read.

Louise's psychological life was well worth exploring and delving into. She was very odd and weird; all the more so to look into this and make the reader feel enthralled by her. I wasn't riveted by the book but my curiosity had been sparked enough to make me continue reading.

The ending is inevitable as we all know. However, it is an open-ended one and the reader is left to make their own mind up. Towards the end of the book, you will feel chilled to the bone and I guarantee you will outwardly shudder when you close the book and put it down.

Order your copy of Lullaby here.

Amena Ravat is a qualified social worker, a mother and a wife. Reading is her form of escape and something she is very passionate about. 

Follow her on Instagram: @theclubofbooks