The Perfect Nanny
By Leila Slimani
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin. 234 pp. Paperback. $16
Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan
nolead ends The first "hot" novel of 2018, Leila Slimani's international blockbuster The Perfect Nanny, has just been translated into English. Be forewarned: Readers sure to be most curious about it are the ones who would do best avoid it. The last thing working mothers with children need to be reading in their nanoseconds of downtime is this psychological suspense novel about a "perfect" nanny who snaps.
The book aspires toward the taut elegance of that classic nanny nightmare tale, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and, in language and complexity, it comes pretty darn close. Indeed, Slimani's novel won France's most prestigious literary honor, the Goncourt Prize, when published there in 2016; Slimani is the first Moroccan-born woman to be so honored. The voice of Slimani's omniscient third-person narrator is consistently chilly and precise; her plot spares neither characters' fates nor readers' sensibilities. The opening sentences warn us that this is a story in which the worst can happen and, in fact, just has: "The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds."
The two children have been murdered by their longtime nanny. Their mother, Myriam, discovers this grotesque scene upon her return home to the family's small apartment in Paris. Again, this discovery occurs within the opening pages of the novel, so intrigue derives not from what has happened, but why. The nanny, Louise, is the central enigma of Slimani's novel - a human black hole who swirls into the family's living room one day and pulls in and extinguishes the light in everyone's lives.
As unflinching as Slimani is in her descriptions of the grisly damage that can be inflicted on the human body, she's just as assured in assessing mental and emotional bruises and breakages, particularly as they develop in the intricate relationship between Louise and her employers. After its horrific opening chapter, The Perfect Nanny flashes back to Louise's initial entrance into the lives of Miriam and her husband, Paul; to a time when the couple was naively confident that they could spot any problems with a prospective nanny.
Myriam (like Slimani herself) is Moroccan-French, and though she has confronted racism in Paris, she refuses to hire any North Africans. The couple has interviewed a parade of unsuitable women before the birdlike, middle-aged Louise walks in, perfectly perfect in every way, down to her prim Peter Pan collar. In a few short weeks, Louise takes charge, not only of the two children, but also of their needy parents:
What's the appeal of this setup for Louise? Ah, that's for Slimani's aloof narrator to slowly reveal. As Louise becomes increasingly untethered from reality, we learn more about her own grim family background and the miserable apartment she returns to every evening, which she regards as a mere "lair, a parenthesis where she comes to hide her exhaustion."
Poetic phrases like that abound throughout Slimani's novel and elevate it well above its formulaic premise, one that has inspired many a Lifetime television movie. Ironically, for all its fine language, the novel's takeaway is pretty much that of the feminist backlash message of those movies, as well as of that 1992 cinematic cultural touchstone, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Namely, there is no "perfect nanny"; indeed, the nanny who's tending to your children may well be a psycho. Is any career worth that risk, ladies?
Surely it's the enduring masochistic power of that nightmare - rendered particularly vivid here through Slimani's great stylistic gifts - that have made this slim novel an international best seller. Talk about a guilty pleasure.