Reviewed by Jed Cruz
THE PERFECT NANNY
By Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor
240 pp. Penguin Books.
In The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani immerses the reader in a version of Paris not often seen in media: gloomy, uncaring, suffocating, and thoroughly intriguing. It is a lean novel that will be done in a sitting or two, always keeping the reader on their toes in spite of the clichéd premise — it is as if the book itself is one unfortunate incident away from finally tipping on the side of irredeemable, unstoppable, murderous insanity.
The novel opens with the story’s gruesome aftermath, with one child dead, another dying, and a mother driven to the brink of despair. It is after this graphic introduction that the plot begins to unfold.
Myriam and her husband live in Paris with their two children, and they have very much become victims of the demands of modern life. Myriam wants to work, but they have children to look after. They decide to get a nanny.
They find a nanny, and she is perfect: Louise is great with the kids. She keeps their apartment tidy, and she is an amazing cook. She is, in Myriam’s words, “a miracle worker.”
What follows is a slow, initially-invisible unraveling of the family’s lives as they incorporate and intertwine with that of Louise. It begins with little gestures of kindness, and small eruptions — not of violence, but the potential for violence — which are made all the more unsettling by the reader’s awareness of how it all ends. The fascination and wonder that the family and the nanny have for each other gradually degenerate into familiarity and resentment in an almost cabin-fever like fashion. It’s a madness of isolation right in the middle of the big city.
This descent is made believable by Slimani’s stifling portrayal of modern-day Paris and her characters’ limited control over the things that influence their lives. Myriam, her husband Paul, their children, and Louise are all prisoners, and by the final act of the novel, it seems like even they are aware of where their futures lie as they desperately try to recapture the magic of happier days.
The Perfect Nanny is an almost by-the-numbers thriller that rises above its contemporaries thanks to its fleshed-out characters and its unbearably oppressive atmosphere. The novel has been translated from its original French, and there are some remarkably poetic turns of phrase peppered throughout that only support the dreamlike pace at which the plot floats along. A big chunk of the narrative is devoted to quick snapshots of the characters’ daily lives, but there are a couple of instances of fridge horror: the disturbing implications of a character’s actions only explode in full force after the reader takes the time to think about it.
Readers will not the find the plot of The Perfect Nanny particularly novel, but fans of the genre will find a lot to appreciate in the characters, their day-to-day interactions, and Leila Slimani’s skillful maintenance of the underlying dread that permeates the lives of the people in her story. Highly recommended for avid readers of thrillers and mysteries alike.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]