on The Perfect Nanny, a novel by Leila Slimani, translated. by Sam Taylor (Penguin Books)

The following headline was recently aired on Boston TV news: “Police in Salinas, California said a 47-year old nanny was arrested after she allegedly was drunk while attempting to pick up a six-year old child from an elementary school.” It was reported that she drove there with a one-year old baby. Suspicious school employees stalled her as she struggled to unlock her car. Police arrived, a breathalyzer test was given, and the nanny was booked on DUI and child endangerment charges with bail set at $50,000.

nanny.jpgNews show producers know instinctively that millions of people across the country are responsive to such stories and will instantly speculate about not only the nanny but the parent or parents. Leila Slimani, the author of the French bestseller and 2016 Prix Goncourt winner Chanson Douce, was similarly struck upon hearing the news in October, 2012 that a mother had returned to her Upper West Side apartment to find her little girl and boy fatally stabbed in a bathtub by the family’s nanny. Setting her story in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, Slimani begins, “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.”

Having dropped the unstated loaded question How could this have happened? in the reader’s lap, Slimani exploits and adds dimension to the same emotional triggers the news show producer relies on. The story’s father is Paul Massé, a music producer who often works nights in the studio. The mother is Myriam Charfa, an ambitious lawyer of Moroccan origin like Slimani herself (who also has Alsatian grandparentage). “No illegal immigrants, agreed?” says Paul as the parents begin their search for household help. “For a cleaning lady or a decorator, it doesn’t bother me. Those people have to work, after all. But to look after the little ones, it’s too dangerous. I don’t want someone who’d be afraid to call the police or go to the hospital if there was a problem. Apart from that … not too old, no veils and no smokers.”

images_2.jpegThey hire an experienced nanny named Louise -- blonde and thin, “haughty and docile,” primly kempt but indigent, wanting to please but unsocialized, dedicated to the children but estranged from her own daughter and unattached to others. The family and nanny travel together to Greece (just as the New York nanny had been taken to the Caribbean). Louise not only maintains the apartment with reliable orderliness, but is also a competent cook. The friends of the Massés are envious of their priceless find who arrives early and departs late after preparing their dinners.

At the end of the novel, a police captain, Nina Dorval, examines the crime scene. The narrator says, “… despite the corroborating testimony about this perfect nanny, she told herself she would find the flaw. She swore she would understand what had happened in this warm, secret world of childhood, behind closed doors.” The narrative voice of The Perfect Nanny speaks with the attitude of a police procedural and the dry tone of official scrutiny, occasionally indulging some irony – everyone is a suspect of sorts, if not of committing murder, then of vague acts of collusion, disregard, patronization, provocation.

For instance, at one point, the Massés have their friends over for dinner – and invite Louise to join them:

“Louise is sitting at one end of the sofa, her fingers with their long polished nails tensed around her glass of champagne. She is as nervous as a foreigner, an exile who doesn’t understand the language being spoken around her. She shares embarrassed, welcoming smiles with the other guests on either side of the coffee table … Emma, who is sitting next to Louise, talks to her about her children. Louise knows how to talk about that. Emma has worries, which she explains to the reassuring nanny. ‘I’ve seen that lots of times, don’t worry,’ Louise repeats. Emma, who has so many anxieties and to whom no one listens, envies Myriam for being able to depend on this Sphinx-like nanny …”

The voice may also be that of a forensic psychologist: "Hate rises up inside her. A hate that clashes with her servile urges, her childlike optimism. A hate that muddies everything. She is absorbed by a sad, confused dream. Haunted by the feeling that she has seen too much, heard too much of other people's privacy, a privacy she has never enjoyed herself. She has never had her own bedroom."

ni_Frankfurt_Book_Fair_2017_Day_mic7ZhKhyHOl.jpgThe semi-caustic voice and unforgiving eye of this nanny-noir make for compulsive reading. But there is a literary chasm between Slimani’s novel and Mathias Énard’s Compass (Boussole), the Goncourt Prize recipient in 2015. Énard’s inventive narrative deploys language virtuosically, cultivates an array of timely ideas, beginning with the historic exchange of culture between Europe and the Middle East, and is driven by a psyche that longs for love. Compass comprises a densely creative indictment of Orientalism. The Perfect Nanny, on the other hand, seems to have earned its prize by nipping at a muffled but prickly anxiety felt by a certain class of French achievers. That anxiety transfers with a translatable slickness to that of affluent Americans. After all, the story actually starts at 57 West 75th Street in Manhattan.

[Published January 9, 2018. 228 pages, $16.00 paperback}