Sometimes, the hype surrounding a book, film or other work of art is so frenzied that it deters you from engaging with it rather than drawing you in. A tsunami of rave reviews and glowing media coverage can make you feel a) that you've already read/watched/seen it yourself because you've read so much about it or b) certain it'll be a letdown.
Despite the brouhaha surrounding the novel Lullaby – known as Chanson Douce in France – it doesn't disappoint. The book, by 36-year-old French-Moroccan author and journalist Leila Slimani, is nothing short of a sensation, having sold 600,000 copies in France and winning the country's most prestigious literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt, last year. It tells the story of a charming middle-class Parisian couple, Myriam and Paul, their two young children and the nanny they trust, Louise. The book's first line is “The baby is dead," so it's no spoiler to say that things don't end well.
Slimani has become known in France for her fearless writing, having taken on other topics as taboo as infanticide: her first novel, 2014's Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (In the Ogre’s Garden) explored female sex addiction, while her 2017 non-fiction book Sexe et Mensonges (Sex and Lies) delved into the sex lives of Arab women. Translated versions of both books will be out in the UK next year.
Her cultural cachet is such that French president Emmanuel Macron invited her to be his minister of culture last year, a role she claims to have turned down because she values her freedom too much to sacrifice it for a political life. Instead, Slimani opted for an unpaid role as a representative of the French language abroad, a fitting appointment when you consider that Lullaby has been translated into 18 languages. Refinery29 met her to discuss modern motherhood, the politics of race and the backlash against #MeToo.
The book is often mentioned in the same breath as Gone Girl. How does that comparison make you feel?
I'm neither annoyed nor flattered, I’m very conscious that this is how my book is being marketed. I understand that some are reading my book as a thriller, but I don't think it's a thriller, because a thriller has its own codes and I felt very free to not stick to those codes.
One of your tactics is revealing the ending at the start, what was your thinking behind that?
It’s like a Greek tragedy. I like the idea of fate – it’s like telling the reader it’s going to end badly and you have the most important piece of information, but the parents don’t. So the reader will be looking at things with a lot of attention that the parents are ignoring and the reader wants to warn the parents, to tell them that something is wrong and that they need to be careful. I like the idea that the reader is going to be very attentive and is going to feel uncomfortable. It also helps to create tension – I wanted the book to have an atmosphere of anxiety and frustration, like a Polanski or Hitchcock movie.
The book's title is slightly different in the US – The Perfect Nanny – what was the thinking behind that?
My American editor told me that in American society, mothers are obsessed with the idea of perfection: being the perfect mother, the perfect nanny and there is anxiety around this idea of perfection, so we wanted to emphasise this. Maybe in European societies, [mothering is] more about lullabies and being caring. Maybe British and French women assume that they can’t be perfect, so it’s not a question of perfection.
I’m fighting for women's right to say that sometimes motherhood is annoying and it’s not always a pleasure to be mother.
How much of your own experience of being a mother is in the book?
I didn’t use my experience but I used my emotions. I tried to use all my fears and nightmares, to really confront them and not be afraid of my own fears. I wanted to look them in the eye, it's a sort of catharsis. In a way, I’m taking my anxiety and giving it to the reader.
Has writing the book changed your relationship with your children?
No. I’m always fighting women's right to be something other than a mother and to get out of the home. I’m fighting for women's right to say that sometimes motherhood is annoying and it’s not always a pleasure to be mother. But, paradoxically, sometimes I feel guilty for saying this and when I go back home, I think maybe I should take care of my children myself.
How do you feel about being asked about being a working mother who employs a nanny so often?
It’s funny when people ask me, "How do you do all this? How do you work and travel?" and I just say I’m doing it like every woman in the world, I’m doing my best. I’m trying. But you would never ask a man, "How do you do everything?" Or "Is it possible to have it all?"
There’s a strong rivalry between the nanny, Louise, and working mother Myriam in the book...
There is a very ambiguous feeling between a mother and a nanny. A mother wants her children to love the nanny but she doesn’t want them to love her too much because she is the mother and she wants to be the most loved. I wanted to show the contradiction between Myriam's mixed feelings.
A lot of people blame women for hiring nannies – even in some of the reviews of your book.
But they don’t blame men.
Do you think that will ever change?
Yes, first we must give more value to the work of a nanny. The more we value their work, the more we will be conscious of the fact that we need them to have the lives we have, that it wouldn't be possible for women to be empowered, to work and have individual lives, without these women taking care of our children. And the more that fathers are involved in family life, the less we will judge women for hiring nannies.
On the subject of social class, have readers reacted to Lullaby differently depending on whether they're middle class, as Myriam and Paul are, or working class, like Louise?
Yes. I'd say that Myriam and Paul are hipsters – I also define myself as hipster – they’re a cool couple and my hipster friends said to me, "Wow you’re a little bit harsh on our cultural class," but I wanted to show the contradictions in this class, because they are open-minded, nice and cool, but there are a lot of contradictions. I've received a lot of mail from nannies and have been moved and touched by what they've told me – that, even though the end of the book is terrible, I paid tribute to their work and the fact that their work is very difficult, and that no one is seeing them. They’re invisible.
There are film versions of the book underway in both France and the US – are you involved in either project in any way?
I’m not involved at all. As an author, I don’t think you own your book. I’ve written it and it’s not mine anymore.
I don’t think all men are pigs and I don’t think you are born a pig, I think that you become a pig.
I don’t think all men are pigs and I don’t think you are born a pig, I think that you become a pig and it's important to say that men are free to define themselves in ways other than as predators or harassers. Freedom is very important. I think those women [who signed the letter] are fighting for the right for men to bother women, but I think the most important fight is for women's right to not be bothered. The fight of women in a lot of countries where being in public spaces is quite impossible for women.
There’s a stereotype of French women being less feminist and more OK with being passive compared with other women. Is that true?
I don't think it's true. French feminists do fight for certain rights, like equal salaries and the right to not be bothered in public spaces, but it is true that they assume a sort of contradiction – that being a feminist doesn't mean we always want to active in front of men. Sometimes we want to be a sexual object. It’s a little bit taboo, but I think sometimes French women hold this contradiction.
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