The first “hot” novel of 2018 is Leila Slimani’s international blockbuster, “The Perfect Nanny,” which has just been translated into English. But be forewarned: Those readers sure to be most curious about it are the very readers who would do best to avoid it. The last thing working mothers with young children need to be reading in their nanosecond 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’s “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 it was 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 chill and precise; her plot spares neither her characters’ fates nor her readers’ sensibilities. The opening sentences of “The Perfect Nanny” warn us that this is a story in which the worst that can happen, in fact, just has:
“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 gray bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. . . . On the way to the hospital, she was agitated, her body shaken by convulsions. . . . Her lungs had been punctured, her head smashed violently against the blue chest of drawers.”
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 the intrigue here 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 relentlessly 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 Myriam and her husband, Paul; to a time when the couple was naively confident that they could spot any looming problems with a prospective nanny. Throwing political correctness out the window, Paul decrees “no illegal immigrants . . . not too old, no veils, and no smokers.”
Myriam (like Slimani herself) is Moroccan French, and though she has confronted racism in Paris, refuses to hire any North Africans: “She fears that a tacit complicity and familiarity would grow between her and the nanny. That the woman would start speaking to her in Arabic . . . asking her all sorts of favors in the name of their shared language and religion. She has always been wary of what she calls immigrant solidarity.”
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:
“Myriam lets herself be mothered. Every day she abandons more tasks to a grateful Louise. The nanny is like those figures at the back of a theater stage who move the sets around in darkness. She picks up a couch, pushes a cardboard column or a wall with one hand. . . . She is Vishnu, the nurturing divinity, jealous and protective; the she-wolf at whose breast they drink, the infallible source of their family happiness.”
What’s the appeal of this setup for Louise, readers may well wonder? Ah, that’s for Slimani’s aloof narrator to slowly reveal. As Louise becomes increasingly untethered from reality, we learn more about her 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 one abound throughout the novel and elevate it well above its formulaic premise, one that has inspired many a Lifetime television movie. But, the irony is that for all its fine language, the takeaway of “The Perfect Nanny” is pretty much the same as the feminist backlash message of those movies, as well as that of 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 bestseller. Talk about a guilty pleasure.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Leila Slimani
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Penguin. 234 pp. Paperback. $16