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Fanny Louvier reviews the best-seller Lullaby by Leïla Slimani.
The Goncourt-winning novel Lullaby by Leïla Slimani was a best seller in France in 2016 with more than 76,000 copies sold. Two years later, its English translation hit the Anglophone market. Slimani’s novel questions the nature of our relationship with domestic workers, that is, the presence of an individual who is neither a stranger nor a family member or a friend within our homes.
Lullabyis the story of the murder of two children by their nanny, inspired by the real story of a nanny who killed the two children under her care in New York in 2012. The children’s death is described in the opening sentence of the book. We then go back in time to meet the parents of the two children who are struggling with their childcare responsibilities, especially the mother who desperately wants to return to work as a lawyer after having her second child. The couple decides to hire a nanny and settle on Louise after a round of interviews. Louise is adored by the children, cleans the house to perfection, happily works extra hours and even cooks delicious dishes for her employers when they come home in the evening. She becomes an integral part of their lives to the point that she becomes too present, leaving very little room for the parents to spend time alone with their children. Slimani describes the nanny as a modern conqueror of foreign lands: ‘after a few weeks, she no longer hesitates to move objects around (…) The silent apartment is completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness.’Tensions over the ownership of the flat and the children grow in the household so that her presence which was at first welcomed, is increasingly felt as uneasy and even threatening, until… we know how it ends.
When Slimani tried to put forward her connection to the women working as domestic workers in an interview with the New York Times, she revealed her unease about the status of nannies:
The subject came from the fact that I myself had nannies growing up in Morocco. At 7 or 8, I was already very sensitive to the very strange position they had in the house; they were both women we loved as mothers, and strangers. I was always touched by their difficult position, sometimes by the humiliations they might go through.
These insecurities are present in the novel as Slimani describes the nanny’s presence, as ‘intimate but never familiar’. She shares with us the anxiety of the young couples when they discover that their nanny has shared a secret with their daughter and thought better not to inform them of her attitude problem; or when the dad discovers that the nanny has put tacky makeup on his young daughter.The power that the nanny has over the children is presented as challenging as she can negatively influence the children when they are outside of their parents’ reach. Slimani also plays on our anxiety and discomfort about the nannies’ bodily presence within our home when she reveals that Louise has taken the habits of taking a shower in her employer’s flat and walks naked in the living room under the eye of the toddler.The body and sexuality of the nanny, symbolized here by the make-up and the shower episodes, are felt as threatening.
Slimani’s definition of the nanny as both a mother and a stranger builds on recurrent tropes in the history of domestic service. The status of the domestic worker has been hard to define in the past as well as the present as work relationships intertwine with intimate connections. With the rise of the concept of intimacy in the nineteenth-century European bourgeoisie, the presence of domestic workers was felt as problematic. For social historian Theresa McBride, ‘the middle-class emphasis on domesticity was becoming increasingly expressed as a closeness and exclusiveness which could no longer tolerate an obtrusive stranger’, that is the domestic worker.Anne-Martin Fugier, a French historian, also highlights the difficulty of defining the domestic worker’s place: ‘The question of her identity is played in the ambiguity of her relationship with the family’s space. She is the exterior that is introduced in the interior.’Employers felt insecure about the presence of strangers in their home which was seen as the very place that was supposed to protect the family from the dangerous influence of the outside world.
Léa and Christine Papin
Because of this overlying fear of the domestic worker as a stranger within the home, many cases in which they had turned out to be thieves or murderers have captivated the public opinion. In France, the Papin sisters’ case was one of the most famous and it resonates with the story told in Lullaby. The two quiet and submissive Papin sisters who worked together as maids in Le Mans brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter in 1933. The case led many French writers and intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Lacan, to try to find answers for the murders within the past childhood of the two sisters who grew in a dysfunctional household with alcoholic parents. The psychology and motives of the sisters continued to be analysed long after the murders in a series of novels, documentaries and essays, from the play ‘The maids’ by Jean Genet in 1947 to a recent episode of the American TV show ‘Law and Order’. Therefore, Slimani inscribes herself in a long tradition of writers who seek to dissect the psychology of ‘mad’ servants to understand their actions.
The domestic worker is seen as a stranger both in the sense that she is an outsider and that she is literally ‘strange’, adopting a behaviour that is alien for her employers. For example, when Myriam, the mother, discovers her nanny playing with the children and fully immersed in the game to the point of forgetting about reality, she first suspects that her nanny is drunk before concluding that Louise ‘is simply a child’.The romanticizing of the nanny as childlike builds on a long paternalistic tradition which has denied domestic workers’ agency and limited their demand for more freedom. The use of such clichés is problematic, especially given the lack of depth of the character. Indeed, Louise is devoured by her occupation, the couple she works for and the children in her care. When the family brings Louise on holiday, Slimani describes the nanny’s anxiety of the separation at the end of their stay:
She would like to hold them back, to cling to them, scratch her nails in the stone floor. She would like to put them under glass, like two dancers, frozen and smiling, stuck to the pedestal of a music box. She thinks that she could stare at them for hours without ever getting bored. That she would be content to watch them live, working in the shadows so that everything was perfect, so that the mechanism never jammed. She has the intimate conviction now, the burning and painful conviction that her happiness belongs to them. That she is theirs and they are hers.
Louise compensates for her miserable and lonely life by immersing herself in their lives. Her husband has died, and she finds herself without any family members or real friends. She calls the employers’ children, ‘her children’ and brushes off the fact that her own daughter ran away. This is the very absence of a story that characterizes Louise’s character as she stays silent and never explains anything, even after the murder of the two children. Could it be the fantasy of an employer who cannot possibly imagine the domestic worker outside of work? To solve the tension created by the presence of a stranger within the home, employers have tended to negate the relationship of domestic workers to the outside world. Reducing them to their occupation helps to limit their ‘threatening’ strangeness, but it also limits our understanding of who these women really are.
In sum, modern employers still struggle to define the status of domestic workers and this unease continues to fuel both their romanticisation and demonization in fiction likeLullaby. While Slimani’s book is a great read, its deficiencies call for more fiction to look at the domestic worker for herself rather than as a receptacle of middle-class insecurities.
Fanny Louvier is a fourth-year DPhil student in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the everyday life of female domestic servants in France and Britain between 1900 and 1939. She primarily uses autobiographies and oral history to gain access to these women’s stories who are otherwise underrepresented in the archives.