Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Leïla Slimani’s bestselling novel evidently strikes a chord with its readers and it isn’t hard to see why. It plays on the deepest fears that any parent can have. What if our children are most at risk from those we’ve hired to care for them? On the very first page, we’re shown a horrific scene: two children brutally murdered, their nanny lying with self-inflicted wounds beside them. It’s a shocking, apparently senseless crime. But then Slimani takes us back, to tell the story of the family, the nanny and the children. Her novel raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about domestic service, modern parenting, class, and the desire to be needed.
Miriam was one of the most brilliant students in her law-school cohort, but her potential has never been fulfilled. The birth of two children in quick succession has left her a stay-at-home mother, driven to distraction by a lack of adult conversation and her efforts to cope with a baby and a fractious toddler. Her husband Paul isn’t much help: preoccupied with his career in a recording studio, he longs to come home to a quiet, organised home. When Miriam bumps into an old law-school friend, who offers her the chance to join him as a partner, she leaps at the chance to become a fully-rounded human being again, and to return to the field in which she flourished. But that leaves them with a problem. What to do about the children? And so she and Paul decide to advertise for a nanny.
Louise is a godsend. From the moment she arrives, she has a wonderful rapport with the two children, Mila and Adam. She is neat, reliable, self-effacing and, most marvellous of all, a veritable Mary Poppins. And, in an interesting choice, she is white: it is the French-Moroccan Miriam who finds herself faced with occasional unthinking racist attitudes, and she is oddly proud to have the social distinction of a white nanny, rather than the usual immigrants from Africa or the Middle East, who had left their own children behind them. But Louise, thinks Miriam, is perfect. Soon she and Paul are living in a tidy, well-organised flat, eating delicious meals that Louise has prepared, and scarcely able to believe the transformation in their children. Louise puts everything into entertaining and caring for the little ones, and nothing is ever too much trouble. Indeed, she finds herself working longer and longer hours, until she begins to feel almost like a member of the family. Cherished by the parents, loved by the children: what has she to fear?
What Miriam and Paul don’t see, and what we learn through flashbacks and vignettes, is how hard Louise is struggling to preserve the neat ‘togetherness’ of her daily perfection. And it’s by understanding her situation that we begin to see the unintentional cruelty in the way they deal with her. Slimani forces us to think about the dynamics of having ‘staff’ nowadays: the awkward way in which we want everything to run smoothly, but aren’t really prepared to open up our entire lives to our domestics, as we might have been once upon a time. And so people like Louise spend their lives caring for the children of well-off people, while fighting to keep their own lives afloat and their own children happy and secure. For Miriam and Paul, Louise ceases to exist when she passes into her ‘other’ world – even though it’s in this other world that she may need their support the most. Some of the most uncomfortable moments in the book deal, not with the dramatic shocks of death and blood, but the entitlement sometimes felt by those who employ others – and who are not prepared to care for those who care for them.
A slow-burning novel, this isn’t for those who want the breathless twists of many modern thrillers; nor do we really find out all that we’d like to, and several loose threads are left untied. However, it will appeal to those who like books which build tension a little more subtly and, to be honest, it’s as much a meditation on social responsibility as it is a ‘why dunnit’. I’d chosen this novel to read during my business trip to Versailles and found that I was suddenly acutely aware of what was going on around me. As I enjoyed the last of the sun on the cathedral steps in the evenings, I watched the children running around, laughing, playing tag, accompanied invariably by ladies of different ethnic backgrounds or very young girls. So here were the nannies. I felt a sudden rush of fascination and fellow-feeling for them, and I wonder how I might feel differently about the novel if I had experience of nannying or if I were in a position to employ a nanny myself. You end up feeling as much compassion for Louise – exploited, struggling, proud, hopeful – as you do uneasiness about the unplumbed depths behind a ‘practically perfect’ exterior.
It would be interesting to know – is anyone aware? – how this has been received by French reviewers, and how its social issues have been discussed in France. Although its general themes are also relevant in London, there is something indefinably Parisian about the novel and its characters’ elegant, bourgeois lives, and I wonder how Slimani’s implicit criticism of such an existence has been received. Or is it criticism? Am I reading too much into this? Are Slimani’s characters merely individuals rather than representatives of a wider problem? Am I imagining the degree of her social commentary? Come; share your thoughts. Discuss…