Reviewed by Katya Rara
THE PERFECT NANNY
By Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor
240 pp. Penguin Books.
After giving birth to her second child, ambitious French-Moroccan lawyer Myriam Massé decides to return to the career she’s put on hold, and she and her music producer husband hire a nanny for their children: blonde, tiny, doll-like Louise.
Louise is perfect at first, taming the Massés’ rambunctious children and tidying up their messes with a work ethic that Paul and Myriam admire, then blissfully take for granted. But as she makes her way into the heart of the family, they become inextricably intertwined—and extricating themselves comes with unforeseen complications.
A horror story in your own backyard
The first chapter of The Perfect Nanny begins with four words: “The baby is dead.” In a few sentences, author Leila Slimani lays all the cards on the table: who lives, who dies, and the unassailable truth that the nanny is at fault. Immediately, the “how” is clear. The question is: Why?
Slimani takes us into the lives of the Massé family as they begin to navigate their own lives again. Character-centric chapters help in unraveling the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of everyone from Myriam and Paul to their daughter Mila.
Louise’s chapters are a different story; as much as Slimani reveals about her, Louise herself remains an enigma. But she becomes more complex, flawed, and human in other chapters, as we see the many ways people see her—and the many ways they don’t.
The atmosphere is everything
If there’s one thing that The Perfect Nanny has in spades, it’s an atmosphere that screams “Something is going to go wrong.” The novel exists in a perpetual autumn or winter, and moments of true connection between characters are few and far between. Even glimpses of lightness and joy are sapped of their vibrancy, like looking over faded photographs.
And while other novels might keep the antagonist’s motives inscrutable as long as possible, Slimani gives a glimpse into Louise’s mind immediately. Though disconcerting at first, it works; as the novel progresses, looking into Louise’s mind, and the minds of those who have been in her orbit, doesn’t make her more familiar, but more unsettling.
A case of “lost in translation”?
I rarely read books translated from another language, and while reading The Perfect Nanny, I was never sure when translator Sam Taylor’s word choices were true to Slimani’s style in French, and when they weren’t.
In Taylor’s translation, Slimani’s writing style is sparse, clipped, and often clinical. Sometimes it’s conspicuous, but it adds to the atmosphere of tension and dread, like holding a breath, never sure of what you’re going to find.
Unsettling, uncomfortable, and unforgettable
As fascinating as The Perfect Nanny’s premise is, the plot comes second to the characters, making it feel like a series of character studies rather than a novel. But Slimani is talented at extracting uncomfortable insights about race, sex, and motherhood, and skillfully captures the strange in-between space that nannies live in around their charges and employers.
The Perfect Nanny keeps you on the edge of your seat, but it does lack one thing: a sense of closure. But the tension and the characters have lingered in my head, weeks after I first finished the book, and I’ll definitely be reading it again—which is a ringing endorsement if there ever was one.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[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.]