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The New Domestic Horror

Leïla Slimani's Prix Goncourt–winning novel hangs some fine social observations on a thin, sensationalized plot.

Horace Abrahams/Keystone Features/Getty

In the original French, Leïla Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny was titled Chanson Douce, which means a sweet song, a lullaby. The new title is more Hollywood, more Gillian Flynn. It is, after all, about a nanny who murders her charges. “The baby is dead,” runs the first sentence. Snappier beginnings are hard to come by.

The novel then steps back in time, tracing the relationship between children, parents, and nanny, from each angle. The mother is Myriam, a French woman who, the reader is meant to infer, has a North African background. She can speak Arabic, and a nanny agency rudely assumes she is a job candidate instead of a prospective employer, one of many ways in which Slimani plays with race and expectations. The father is Paul, a music producer with a lot of White Guy Confidence. Their daughter is Lila. Their son, the baby, is Adam.

They are hiring a nanny because Myriam decides she must return to work. They reject the candidate from the Philippines. They reject the undocumented, Ivorian candidate. They reject the Moroccan candidate; Myriam “fears that a tacit complicity and familiarity would grow” between them. “She has always been wary of what she calls immigrant solidarity.” They hire Louise.

Louise quickly becomes the backbone of the home. “With Louise, nothing accumulates any more: no dirty dishes, no dirty laundry.” She cooks fantastic meals, teaches the children to tidy up after themselves. “Nothing rots, nothing expires.” As Myriam becomes more fulfilled at work, happier and freer now that her home is beautiful and she is no longer tied to it by umbilical duty, Louise’s power—and her mental instability—grows.

Penguin, 240 pp., $16.00

As Douce Chanson, the book won France’s 2016 Prix Goncourt, the prestigious literary prize that has previously been given to Michel Houllebecq, Marcel Proust, and Simone de Beauvoir. In a Le Figaro live chat in 2016, the Goncourt chair Bernard Pivot praised the book in lofty terms, calling it “a novel on class struggle in a bourgeois apartment about possession of the children’s love.”

But as The Perfect Nanny, the novel is being pitched somewhere lower and more profitable. The book’s editor, John Siciliano at Penguin, told The New Yorker that his goal was “to reach a big commercial readership,” to get the book “into places like Walmart and Target.” Siciliano mentioned Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train as comparable titles.

And so the book’s identity is a muddled affair, poised between a big literary prize and a publicity campaign that’s yanking its brow down. And marketing aside, the novel is further confused by its internal contradictions. Pivot’s reference to class struggle makes the novel sound like an inheritor to the French realist tradition of Balzac, Zola, Flaubert. But the setting of Slimani’s novel within the home introduces a whole other kettle of literary fish, concerning the private experiences of women and motherhood.

The home, it seems, is becoming a new site of inquiry for writers interested in both cheap thrills and sophisticated analyses of family politics—in addition to Gone Girl, The Perfect Nanny recalls other recent domestic thrillers like Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It or J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before. Slimani’s focus on race and class certainly elevates the book’s crime-drama stakes into something more complicated, but it’s unclear how these issues relate to bourgeois domesticity and the dangerous power games it cultivates.

Louise is a white nanny, a rare thing in the Paris circles of the novel. She does an immigrant’s job, while Myriam, the immigrant, practices law—traditionally a white man’s job. The inversion allows Slimani to place her characters in situations that provoke race-based conflict. In a flashback, Louise’s ex-husband says, “I’m not like you.… I’m not a doormat, a slave content to clean up the shit and puke of little brats. Only black women do work like that now.” Meanwhile Myriam buys liberty from her home by paying Louise, in a complicated economy of freedom and servitude that resonates with the city around them and the history of French domesticity.

Slimani writes some very good scenes about the women nannies of Paris. She describes the other people in the park, the homeless and useless. Crack-smoking teenagers, children in the sandpit. Along with those who have long stretches of leisure time, the park holds society’s surplus people and its workers. A young nanny called Wafa “sometimes feels afraid that she will grow old in one of these parks. That she’ll feel her knees crack on these old frozen benches, that she won’t be strong enough to lift up a child any more.”

But these scenes, however brilliantly realized, have little to do with the plot propelling the novel, a psychodrama about shifts in power, shifts in mental health, and a fixation upon children. All of this, crucially, takes place inside the house. It’s difficult to see how the inside and the outside of the apartment connect, except to underscore how odd it is that Louise’s employers can’t see how ill she is.

The murdering-nanny plot feels totally disjointed from the rest of the novel, not least because we never really get a sense of Louise’s motives. And no wonder, since it was lifted wholesale from the headlines. Louise is named after the British nanny Louise Woodward, whose conviction for involuntary manslaughter of a baby in her care provoked the “shaken baby syndrome” controversy in the late 1990s. And in 2012, a nanny named Yoselyn Ortega killed the two children of Marina and Kevin Krim in New York City. The crime was splashed across papers everywhere, and the intimate details of the aftermath were tabloid catnip. These included Marina’s terrible scream upon finding her slain children, how it sounded to the neighbors.

Almost every detail of the Ortega crime is reproduced in The Perfect Nanny, from the number of children, to the nanny’s suicide attempt at the scene, to the bathtub where the bodies were found. Novelists draw inspiration from current events all the time, but this crime was so recent, and the parents must still be in such pain, that Slimani’s decision feels almost unseemly. It doesn’t help that the social themes outside the apartment are much better realized that those inside it, which makes one suspect that Slimani is trying to hang prestige material on what is essentially a grubby voyeuristic exercise. Like Gone Girl, the novel deserves praise for pulling off a tricky plot with nuance. But in the future, Slimani might want to come up with her own stories.