Published On: Thu, Jan 11th, 2018

“The Perfect Nanny” exploits working mothers’ fears

The Perfect Nanny. By Leïla Slimani. Translated by Sam Taylor. Penguin; 240 pages; $ 16. Published in Britain as “Lullaby”. Faber and Faber; £12.99.

LEÏLA SLIMANI is a young Moroccan-born journalist based in Paris. Her first novel, about a woman who becomes addicted to sex as relief from her stifling bourgeois life, was compared to “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary”. Her second won the Goncourt prize in 2016. This month it comes out in English.

Like her first work, inspired by the sex scandal that felled Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French political grandee, “The Perfect Nanny” is also based on a true story, about a nanny who murders her small charges. Myriam Massé is a promising young lawyer who embraces motherhood but finds domesticity suffocating. Her husband, Paul, does not want his children brought up by immigrants. “Not too old, no veils and no smokers.” The family lives in a handsome building in the tenth arrondissement in Paris, “where neighbours offer friendly greetings, even if they don’t know each other”. Theirs is the smallest flat, though; they have to build a dividing wall in the living room when their second child is born.

The nanny they hire is Louise, who sets about lightening the atmosphere of the Massés’ home with all the preternatural sweetness of a supermarket air-freshener. She tirelessly repeats the children’s favourite games, rearranges the apartment, cooks up a storm and even does the mending that Myriam has been endlessly putting off.

The novel opens with the crime, so its readability (helped by Sam Taylor’s cool translation) comes from the back story: the transformation of Louise from good fairy to madwoman in the attic. The plot details are laid on ever more thickly. Louise’s husband, it turns out, died after a long illness, leaving her huge debts. Their only child has run away. She turns out to be more than a little needy. A slim page-turner, “The Perfect Nanny” can be read in a single, shivery sitting. It satisfies every middle-class nightmare about the guilty relief of entrusting your screaming toddlers to other people’s care. It will make a great film. Great literature it isn’t.

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“The Perfect Nanny” exploits working mothers’ fears