MOROCCO / FRANCE : NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA
My daughter told me I had to be honest about how long this book took me to read. I bought it in French in Paris a year ago, and did little more than dip into it until this summer. I studied French at university, and inspired by that sense of zeal that comes with a nice relaxing holiday I’d thought it would be a great way of refreshing my rusty language skills…
However, I’d underestimated quite how rusty those skills had become, and it took me until I was about 100 pages in before I could read a single page all the way through without the aid of a dictionary. I’m not sure whether that’s because my French had improved just enough, or whether I’d simply become used to Slimani’s vocab preferences.
Slimani was born in Rabat, Morocco, growing up in a French-speaking family. She moved to Paris at the age of 17, and worked as a journalist. Her first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (‘In the Ogre’s Garden’), appeared in 2014, and won a Moroccan literary award. It was published in the UK in 2019 as Adele. I read that novel, which focuses on a sex-addicted, dissatisfied mother, in English, and enjoyed it, a sort of modern-day Madame Bovaryesque fever dream.
Chanson douce or Lullaby is Slimani’s second published novel, but was the first to appear in English. In France, it was a winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Its massive success in the UK must be partly due to the fact that Slimani has tapped into the anxiety, exhaustion and everyday frustration that (amid the many joys of parenthood) encapsulate the experience of parenting young children.
It must also be down to the fact that once you have read the devastating opening paragraph, you are compelled to read on: “Le bébé est mort. Il a suffi de quelques secondes. Le médecin assuré qu’il n’avait pas souffert. On l’a couché dans une housse grise et on a fait glisser la fermeture éclair sur le corps désarticulé qui flottait au milieu des jouets. La petite, elle, était encore vivante quand les secours sont arrivés. Elle s’est battue comme un fauve. On a retrouvé des traces de lutte, des morceaux de peau sous ses ongles mous. Dans l’ambulance qui la transportait à l’hôpital, elle était agitée, secouée de convulsions. Les yeux exorbités, elle semblait chercher de l’air. Sa gorge s’était emplie de sang. Ses poumons étaient perforés et sa tête avait violemment heurté la commode bleue.”
Motherhood poses a dichotomy: educated, professional women can feel stultified at home with small children, but at the same time pursuing a career is exhausting when combined with broken sleep and running a home. Finances are also an obvious issue. But working generally involves finding paid child care, which means entrusting a stranger with the care of what is most precious. Parental guilt and ambivalence are pervasive – and the 21st century normal.
This novel doesn’t shy away from examining that aspect of femininity (it is still very much a female issue) in excruciating detail, as it invites us into the lives of lawyer Myriam, who lives with her music producer husband Paul and their two children. But it also slowly builds up a detailed picture of the life of disillusionment and everyday misery and poverty of Louise, Myriam and Paul’s nanny.
The descriptions of her time with the family are foreshadowed by the violence to come, and Slimani is a master of metaphor. In the park, Louise takes pictures of the children, Mila and Adam, to show their parents, lying on “un tapis de feuilles mortes, jaune vif ou rouge sang”/”a carpet of dead leaves, bright yellow and blood red”.
Slimani was partly inspired in writing the novel by a double murder case involving two young children in New York in 2012. The children’s nanny was later found guilty of having caused their deaths.
But the novel is also inspired by more personal events in Slimani’s history. During her childhood she was partly raised by a nanny, and in an afterword in the English edition she remembers noticing, at the age of 12, her nanny’s increasing depression and aggression. The nanny had spent 18 years living with the family, and had sacrificed her own chances of marrying and having children.
As an aside, I noticed something while flicking through the English edition, which I found hugely amusing for its reinforcement of stereotypes about the self-control of the appetites of women in Paris. In the French edition is a description of a group of nannies chatting in the local park and “grignotant la fin d’un biscuit au chocolat” (nibbling the end of a chocolate biscuit). In the same scene in the English edition, translated by Sam Taylor, the nannies “nibble chocolate biscuits”. No longer merely the ends, and no longer singular biscuits but several!
The novel is immersive, and Slimani’s style is hypnotic. Marketed as a thriller, the book is not a thriller in the typical sense – the book opens with the children’s murder, and we know the identity of the suspected perpetrator of the crimes from the start. However, the psychological intensity is ramped up little by little in a riveting read that focuses a forensic gaze on unpleasant truths to do with inequality, entitlement and also race that lie at the heart of modern society.