Woolf Scholar’s Novel Choice

Maggie Humm

‘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.

Leila Slimani Lullaby

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.

‘…isolation from other nannies in the park’

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

‘It could be any Western urban capitalist city.’

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.

Manuscript of Talland House is waiting for a front cover

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:

Talland House   

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.


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Virginia Woolf and Social Media

‘As a woman my country is the whole world.’ Three Guineas, Woolf

My country is the world. There are no borders, no passports and no countries in the world of social media; only portals to other people’s imagination and musings.

In Three Guineas, Virginia Wolf wrote, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”  And via social media, I have connected with writers from all over the world.  My endless stream of consciousness travels around the world through: tweets, my blog and Facebook posts.  People of the world open the virtual door to peek at a representation of my world, and I can walk over the threshold to visit their thoughts.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

I weave in and out of articles, thoughts, pictures and moments of others. Everyone is documenting stories from their own viewpoint with unique and shared images.  I have the liberty to hop aboard someone’s narrative then return home to my own world.  Social media allows me to explore the texture of other people’s lives to search for inspiration.

A writing room of my own, connected to the world.

Like Virginia Woolf, I have a room of my own, but I have the company of a computer connected to the world.

While contemplating this brave new world, I wondered if Virginia Woolf would have engaged in social media.

Owing to the power of social media, I could knock on the virtual door of an internationally acclaimed Woolf scholar. Professor Maggie Humm wrote this in her email:

Waiting for Snapshots of Bloomsbury

“I think Virginia might well have used social media. She did write for Vogue with a photo of herself; did photograph from the age of 15 (I included over a hundred of these in my  Snapshots of Bloomsbury); spoke on the BBC several times and enjoyed seeing a range of films from The Bengal Lancer to newsreels.”

Maggie Humm’s eloquent response made me feel as it I was speaking to Virginia Woolf, in cyberspace.

Snapshots of Bloomsbury

Snapshots of Bloomsbury   showcases the photographs of Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell.   Humm’s commentary provides a critical insight into Woolf’s world and ‘the culture and artistry of the period’. Virginia Woolf represented her intimate world in photographs, decades before we became attached to our mobile phones. Now, this is a book I would be proud to own, but I will place it in my battered briefcase. Snapshots of Bloomsbury needs to be enjoyed in the physical rather than digital form.  However, I can’t help wondering what images and words Woolf would have chosen to share via social media.   If only, I could invite Virginia Woolf to my Chat Room.


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