This is a shocking tale, beautifully told. And the scarcely believable denouement is laid bare on the first page:
‘The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived….’
This is no whodunnit either. Louise, the children’s nanny, killed her charges. But the background to why is told sensitively and in almost a staccato literary style, with short sentences and chapters, in what is more a novella than a full-blown novel.
Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer and her husband Paul, an ambitious music producer, seemingly have it all. But when Myriam decides to go back to work after having their second child, they need a nanny.
At first Louise seems too good to be true, quickly making herself indispensable to the family. But with deft writing, unpeeling Louise’s troubled past and gradually changing the dynamics between the family and their needy nanny, the author prepares the ground for the unthinkable conclusion.
In such a short book, it’s remarkable that Leila Slimani has managed to raise so many important issues ‘de nos jours’, in addition to the main sad story – society’s attitudes to motherhood; social deprivation; domestic violence; mental health problems; the immigrant underclass; and more.
Translated by Sam Taylor from the original French – entitled ‘Chanson Douce’ – it’s no surprise that this book won France’s most prestigious literary Prix Goncourt in 2016.
The novel is firmly based in Paris, with a poignant contrast drawn between the luxurious arondissement where Myriam and Paul live, and the remote slum banlieu where Louise rents a run-down apartment. But it is the dark, unsettling story of how a nanny comes to murder her charges that will linger in the mind long after you’ve turned the final page.
Bravo Leila Slimani.