Due to the general lack of, well, anything else to do, our next virtual meet-up came around quickly. One benefit of lockdown seems to be that reading time is up exponentially, especially when one group member’s husband (mine) is reliving his teenage years by hogging the television with an eBay copy of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ on his Playstation. Another result of the dreaded L-word is that, starved of human contact and devoid of other commitments, we were all very eager to get chatting mere weeks after the last call. As well as dissecting a gripping read, I wanted to find out if any of the others had seen a recent damning article about the author, and whether or not this had affected their opinion of the book, as it had mine. The piece in question referred to Slimani’s tone-deaf essay on her experience of quarantine, including poetic descriptions of the picturesque views of the fields and coast surrounding her French country house. Not necessarily what the average Parisian (or Londoner!) wants to hear when staring at the four rented walls of an overpriced box with Amazon delivery vans honking outside or battling for a scrubby two square metre patch of the local park.
At 207 pages, Lullaby is an engrossing novel that can be read in minimal sittings and indeed was by all of the group. In one case, a single sitting in the bath. The international bestseller and winner of the Prix Goncourt is a thriller centred around a Parisian family and their seemingly perfect nanny. It is not a spoiler to tell you that the baby dies; it’s on the front cover and is declared in the first sentence. This was where our group discussion began as we settled into our screens, variously consuming tea, wine and sushi. We agreed that in revealing the end at the start, some of the considerable tension was lost. Though it may have fuelled a desire to discover how and why we reached that point, when we arrived at the finale, it was somewhat rushed, lacking in detail and still felt like too big a jump in the given scenario.
Most of us felt that the writing style had a tendency to feel too obviously manipulative. The prose is direct with little development, even in some of the grislier moments. This has the jarring effect of making those scenes feel gratuitous and the shock they induce, unearned. It also meant that key emotional sequences were not given enough attention. We were lucky to be able to turn to our club French speaker, who had read another book by the same author in her native language. She was able to confirm that no, the simplistic prose was not a result of the translation, but typical. Although this is a valid stylistic choice, in this case, it didn’t serve the subject matter. This seemed all the more relevant when a conscientious member of our group revealed that in doing some homework about Slimani’s motivations behind writing the novel, she’d discovered that there was an overriding preoccupation with readership numbers, as opposed to a committed exploration of the ideas presented.
We were interested in the premise and the context of the writing; real life stories of communities of immigrant nannies who look after the offspring of wealthy city families, some leaving their own children behind in another country while they work. Slimani is reported to have said that she didn’t feel there would be sufficient interest, were she to write a long read about this world. So, instead, she decided to write a thriller and to make the protagonist a French white woman. We felt, collectively, that she was misguided on this and furthermore, that it is rare that a tactical approach to a creative piece is entirely undetectable in the consuming of it. She certainly achieved what she set out to do from a commercial point of view, but the people she wanted to represent were lost in the process. This is unfortunate, particularly as the globe, now more vocally than ever, is crying out for a diverse range of narratives.
Having said that, there is no doubt that we all found it to be the page-turner the blurb promised. Even those of us who wouldn’t normally have picked up a thriller felt that we were adequately catered for in the setting and the tensions of the relationships between nanny and family. Having worked as a nanny myself, I needed little convincing. The conversation led to inevitable comparisons between this fictional Parisian family and the equivalent families in London whose Little Darlings had been in my charge over the years. In my view, the nanny in this story hit the jackpot with her employers. The same could not be said for the poor parents who hired her. A little more development of the characters could have been achieved in a slightly longer book, which would have been welcomed by all of us.
So far, as a group, a lot of our thoughts and reactions seem to align, or at the very least sit in the same ballpark. I am fascinated by the process of change my own responses have gone through in the course of our discussions. Doing a willing about-turn and understanding why, is a pleasing experience. I wonder, however, if we’ll continue to be quite so receptive as we get to know each other better. Something tells me we haven’t yet reached top gear debate; an arena I’m pretty happy to jump into every now and then with other willing participants. I get the impression most of my fellow book clubbers might be just that. There have been signs in our excitable group messages of vastly differing reactions to the next book, so perhaps isolation hasn’t sucked the life out of us just yet.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani (translated from French by Sam Taylor)
Next book – Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz (USA).