‘Without a doubt, Lullaby will be one of the most unsettling, absorbing, un-put-downable novels of 2018,’ according to Professor Maggie Humm. Intrigued, I invited the internationally acclaimed Woolf scholar to tell me more about Lullaby by Leila Slimani.
It was a delight to receive mail from Maggie Humm, as all her academic books were once crammed into my student rucksack. I am honoured to step aside so that Maggie Humm can challenge us with her review of a novel from a newly-refreshed sub-genre of literary fiction.
Lullaby Leila Slimani
As Match of the Day might say ‘leave the room if you don’t want to know the result. Lullaby recounts an apparently simple scenario. Louise, a nanny of indeterminate age, is hired by Paul and Myriam, a successful middle-class Parisian couple, to care for their two children, baby Adam and Mila. Louise is tiny, with immaculate finger-nails, constantly wearing the Peter Pan collared blouse of the novel’s cover. Soon she transforms her employers’ lives for the better: the children adore her, she unobtrusively cooks, cleans and anticipates all their desires and needs. The kind of woman you’d never spot in a crowd.
In flashback, and through multiple characters’ interactions with Louise, we come to understand and empathise with her past: a loveless childhood, poverty, and domestic and sexual violence. Unusually, and intriguingly, these features are not presented as completely explanatory reasons for her final violent act – the murder of the two children. Myriam and Paul are occasionally caring and thoughtful employers whose actions to some extent compensate for Louise’s past traumas. And their kindness becomes the problem. Louise is desperate to live full-time with Paul and Myriam, to have them ‘adopt’ her. Until she kills.
Although none of the stories are told in first person we inhabit the minds of differing characters almost in real-time at key turning points: the nanny’s sensual exploration of the apartment where she will kill; her physical disgust with men during sex; her isolation from other nannies in the park; the warmth and beauty of a Greek island holiday with her employers and children. This ‘sticky mess’, as Heiser says, takes over our emotions and our bodies. We can feel Louise on our skin, even taste what she eats.
Lullaby joins a newly-refreshed sub-genre of literary fiction recreating real-life crime, exemplified by another best-selling French novel Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary; combined with a women’s fiction genre of apparently affectless short sentences as in Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton
These novels focus on the gap between what we think we know and what we experience in the diurnal life of the novel – a technique often characterised as metamodernist. That is, novels which deal with structures of feeling after postmodernism. Lullaby appears intensely intimate – narrating the lives of each person in the lead up to murder. But, as a metamodernist novel it also portrays (very subtly) ways of feeling and thinking about contemporary issues: immigration, poverty, homelessness or the threat of homelessness, women’s bodies and misogyny played out in the physical geography of Paris. It could be any Western urban capitalist city.
Lullaby is also a woman’s novel (although not without interest to male readers hopefully). Clothes, jewellery, cooking and meals, women’s physical differences from men, are all as significant as actions, and trigger and shape actions in many cases. For example, Louise takes the children out to dinner one evening hoping that her employers will be able to have sex undisturbed, and produce the new baby that Louise needs to retain her place. The children are disconcerted by being dragged around strange streets to eat and when they return Louise discovers that the wife went early to bed alone. Louise’s ensuing anger (hidden from Myriam and Paul) contributes to the build-up to murder. The significance of meals and fashions were themes of the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf, but what makes Lullaby essentially metamodernist is the way in which Lullaby displaces and undercuts notions of the feeling subject by the continual unknowingness of motive and desire. Rather than arriving at a resounding ending – a Joycean ‘yes she said, yes she said, Yes; or Woolf’s Lily Briscoe’s ‘I have had my vision’ (note the present perfect containment), Lullaby ends with the reader alongside the female detective, re-enacting the murder. In The Adversary the narrator leaves behind the protagonists, drives back to Paris, deciding ‘that writing this story could only be either a crime or a prayer.’ Lullaby forces the reader to become Louise ‘who takes a knife from the cupboard,’ and to recreate the murder ourselves in our minds.
Without a doubt, Lullaby will be one of the most unsettling, absorbing, un-put-downable novels of 2018.
Maggie Humm is an Emeritus Professor, University of East London. An internationally-acclaimed Woolf scholar, the author of 14 books both for an academic and general readership, the last 3 focused on Woolf and the arts, the topic of Talland House – her debut novel. Talland House was shortlisted for the Impress and Fresher Fiction prizes 2017 (as Who Killed Mrs. Ramsay?). A short story ‘Cult Love’ was ‘highly commended’ by the National Association of Writers’ Groups (2018).
Maggie Humm’s debut novel Talland House was shortlisted for the Impress and Fresher fiction prizes 2017 (as Who Killed Mrs. Ramsay?).
Talland House will be released soon. Maggie’s manuscript is waiting for a front cover but even the manuscript looks tempting. Maggie will send a photo of her book in a handbag when it is available.
In the meantime, here is an overview of the novel:
The Royal Academy, London 1919. Lily Briscoe has a painting displayed. She’s put her student life in picturesque St. Ives behind her: her friend and substitute mother Mrs. Ramsay disliked Lily’s portrait of her it seemed; Louis Grier, her tutor, didn’t seduce her as she’d hoped. Ten years on she’s been a suffragette, a nurse in WWI, and now a successful artist. But then Louis appears at the exhibition. He tells Lily that Mrs. Ramsay died suddenly and Lily has to investigate. And she realizes that she still loves Louis.