By Katie Holland
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, French–Moroccan author Leïla Slimani admitted using the grisly subject matter of her novel Lullaby — the murder of two children at the hands of their nanny — to illuminate the “utterly boring and repetitive” life of a childminder, grounding the brutal crime in a shocking banality.
Lullaby is the translation of Slimani’s second novel, the prix Goncourt-winning Chanson Douce, which was published in French in 2016. In the extensive coverage of the English edition, translated by Sam Taylor, the book has been praised as a tense psychological thriller. However, by choosing to write about two women whose relationship is based on the purchase of one’s labour by the other, Slimani’s novel also provides explicit commentary on the powerful effects of class on the terrain of contemporary women’s working lives. Seen from this perspective, the ‘lullaby’ of the novel’s title is not simply an allusion to the story’s dark dénouement, but also to the social conditions which have subdued the radical edges of feminist consciousness.
The story is centred around, and juxtaposes, two Parisian women: Myriam, an ambitious lawyer and mother of two small children, who leads a middle-class existence in the 10th arrondissement, and Louise, a widow and a mother estranged from her only daughter, who earns her living as a childminder in her home on the outskirts of the city. Both characters struggle with the pressures of motherhood: Myriam deliberately falls pregnant a second time so as not to leave “the sweetness of home,” but this soon gives way to feelings of boredom, isolation and guilt as she experiences emptiness in the absence of professional work. Meanwhile, Louise’s daughter Stéphanie is wayward and uncommunicative, and eventually runs away from home. Myriam and her husband, Paul, hire Louise to look after their children, and the nanny quickly proves herself indispensable. Gradually, though, the fragility of Louise’s projected image of a consummately dedicated nanny begins to falter, as the reasons for her insinuating herself so intimately within the family’s life reveal a vulnerability beneath her competent facade.
Myriam and Louise find one another through their mutual need for employment, and their employer–employee relationship binds them fatefully together in a way that reflects the class division that causes them to relate to work so differently. Myriam, on the one hand, is desperate to reclaim her identity as a member of the professional class, even if, as Paul dismissively notes, her income will simply be spent on the nanny’s salary. For Myriam, the decision to pay for childcare so that she can return to work is axiomatic, and for Paul their arrangement with Louise is purely transactional: “she works so we can work.” In contrast, Louise’s working-class background is indicated through a conspicuous absence of any symbols of security: with no family, friends, qualifications or interests, she is driven to work for Myriam and Paul by the cold logic of her relentless financial burdens. This is also emphasised by the location of her home as, priced out of central Paris, she inhabits a depressingly nondescript neighbourhood that only reinforces her isolation, and she cannot bear to leave her house except to go to work.
Myriam’s decision to take a nanny explicitly reflects the individualistic concerns of the middle class: although of North African heritage herself, she avoids hiring a Moroccan nanny, since she is wary of showing “immigrant solidarity.” Furthermore, as she grows accustomed to Louise’s services, Myriam finds herself reneging on her previous commitment to certain principles, such as when she starts buying Louise gifts and giving her old clothes, even though she used to think it “humiliating” to do so. Through such occurrences, Slimani appears to be examining how middle-class material success can desensitise women to the ongoing struggle of others, and, more dangerously, how it results in the compromise of feminist goals by such a remorseless definition of ‘success.’
Through the intriguing and shocking demise of the nanny, Slimani’s novel forces us not simply to question the extent to which Louise is guilty, but rather the viability of a system in which one woman’s success comes so inextricably at the expense of another. For what Myriam and Louise’s relationship most powerfully illustrates is the commodification of female potential (both reproductive and professional) and its outsourcing to the disenfranchised, instead of being valued as an integral part of a welfare system. The potential for collective solidarity and empathy within the feminist movement is thus shown to be marginalised by the individualistic choices encouraged by contemporary consumer societies, which leave little scope for such values (and even dress up such choices as an enactment of women’s post-feminist ‘agency’). However, as the emphasis on Myriam and Louise’s similarly difficult experience of child-rearing shows, remembering the commonalities women share across class and race remains a powerful mobilising tool to keep feminist concerns alive.
Katie Holland is an editor currently based in Cairo. Her undergraduate studies in Arabic and Persian have taken her to live, work and travel around the Middle East. She tweets as @katiejholland about literature, culture, politics and the environment.
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