Rating: 4 Stars
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is a very disturbing novel. You know what is going to happen from the very first page, and you keep hoping for some twist that would make you realize that you were wrong. The twist never comes, and you are left feeling devastated at the end.
It is the story of a French family, where the mother wants to go back to work after having two kids. They are lucky enough to find a nanny, Louise, who ticks all the boxes for them. She is white, a legal citizen, with no family, and open to working at odd hours. In a city full of illegal immigrants working as nannies, Louise is a gift from the heavens. She has no entanglements, and her previous employers can’t help but sing her praises. For the reader though, she comes across as a bit creepy from the beginning of the book.
The threads of racism, sexism, class prejudice, depression and motherhood are all woven together in such a subtle manner that you only realize their existence once you look back at the story. The struggle of a mother, who wants to work and also feels guilty about leaving her kids at home, is very real. She feels resentful of the children for stopping her from achieving her potential, yet she loves them fiercely and doesn’t want them to grow up without her around either. Her feelings of worthlessness and her postpartum depression, are very real and relatable.
Then there is the commentary about race. There is a lot of talk about illegal immigrants and the problems associated with them. Almost all the nannies are persons of colour, and majority are immigrants, mostly illegal. That a white nanny will turn out to be the crazy one, is incomprehensible to everyone.
Another issue that runs throughout the book is that of class difference. The families try their best to think of the help as one of the family, but they never are. There is always awkwardness in social situations, and the difference in class makes itself evident one way or another. The way these families decide to be generous and take the nanny with them for a holiday, and then spend the holiday being awkward and regretting their decision, sounds too close to real life. In such circumstances, it becomes difficult for the employees not to build up expectations, and then be confused once the employer decides to take it all back.
There is the dependency of the nanny and the parents on each other. The couple is afraid to offend her because they rely on her, and also because they are uncomfortable with her social standing. The nanny wants them to be bereft without her, and feels offended when they seem to get by when she is not there. All this feels too real. When you employ someone, it is impossible to know everything about them. This is most dangerous when you’re entrusting them with your children and your home. Checking up on references can only tell you a little bit about them, and this book preys on this fear of the reader.
After reading this book, you will never want to hire another domestic worker unless they can provide you proof of their sanity. The reason why I said that this is a disturbing book, is that it tells you about the shocking and grotesque murder of two children, and takes you back to the events leading to it, but doesn’t give you the neat and tidy ending that you want. It solves no mystery, it shows no justice, and it gives no solace. It is just a story about a family and a nanny. It is chilling and scary, and it doesn’t have any answers.
Reading this book made me wish that I knew French and could read it in its original form. Translations can never capture the true essence of a book, no matter how good they may be. Such a book deserves to read in its full original form.