I must admit from the start that there will inevitably be SPOILERS about The Perfect Nanny in this review. It’s difficult to talk about the plot or premise at all without them, so if you’d like to go into the novel not knowing anything about it, do not read any further. It should suffice for me to say that I am in an utter fog now, having just finished it…I don’t really know what to say, but here goes nothing…
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is an absolutely chilling read.
I first came across this novel on Instagram, where the cover enticed me to find out more about it. Depicting a blue and white, Peter Pan collared shirt, the cover suggests that this story will have something to do with false appearances. The buttons are done up too perfectly, the shirt is too crisp, the blue too clean, the white too pristine…there is something behind this perfect façade that cannot be quite so immaculate.
I then read the tagline for the novel, which was on the cover of the book in this particular photo I was looking at on Instagram. It turns out that this tagline is in fact the first phrase of the novel, which sets the tone for what is to come…
“The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.”
My blood ran cold when I read that line, and yet I was intrigued enough to put the novel on my To-Read List. When I saw it in Chapters a few days later, my fate was sealed – I purchased it, started reading it that very same day, and have now finished it, two days later.
As I said before, The Perfect Nanny is haunting, disturbing, disgusting, heartbreaking, terrifying… It is so many horrific things that it is almost impossible to describe. It’s not that graphic, to be perfectly honest, and yet there is this underlying sense of discomfort from start to finish, this anxiety on the part of the reader because we know how things are going to turn out, and it turns our stomach not to be able to look away from this inhumanity, the horrible tragedy of it all. Slimani is a masterful storyteller, and by choosing to begin her novel with the conclusion, the deaths of the two little children whose simple, adorable lives will then be described minutely, she draws the reader into this web of nerves and unsettled fears, she forces the reader to keep watching, to assume the status of voyeur, to accept this incapacity to change a thing coupled with this inability to look away.
Slimani also writes in such a literary style, and although the phrases are clipped and concise and not overly descriptive, she paints this blurry, hazy picture of a life that could belong to anyone. As a reader, we can put ourselves into the role of any of these characters, because Slimani leaves enough room for interpretation, of actions and events, of thoughts and desires. There is much that seems to be written between the lines of Slimani’s narration, there is mystery in the scenes she paints so vaguely and in such a simple style. It is almost as if Slimani is presenting us with an allusion to an occurrence, rather than a picture of the occurrence itself. Events are veiled just enough to keep them interesting, and yet the characters are left raw and exposed, open to criticism and hatred and contempt. Slimani’s story is heavily a character study, and so the plot points themselves fade seamlessly into the background of the text, leaving these complicated characters at the forefront, and helplessly open to the reader’s scrutiny.
It is not only the so-called “perfect nanny” who is open for examination. Slimani leaves all of her characters bare, from the parents Paul and Myriam who mean well but are tragically blind to the strangeness around them, to the “perfect nanny” Louise’s daughter and husband, to the friends and colleagues of Paul and Myriam who are just as oblivious as they are. There is so much to unravel and investigate within the very few pages of The Perfect Nanny (it is, after all, only 228 pages in total), and the reader is left at the end with this disturbing feeling that no conclusion whatsoever has been reached, that nothing has been solved, that things are more muddled and confusing and upsetting than they were even in the beginning, when that first phrase “The baby is dead” is declared.
What is abundantly clear, though, is that the children, Mila and Adam, are innocent. They are children, and so they are at once frustrating and endearing, loud and serene, hyper and soothed, but always, always lovable. The reader is left, at the end, with this overwhelming feeling of sadness that, because of a nanny’s obsession and the inability of two parents to fully comprehend the depths of her despair and illness, two totally innocent children have been made to suffer. That is an awful feeling to be left with, and yet it makes the novel truly unforgettable and so poignant and important.
I feel that there is a lesson somewhere in The Perfect Nanny, and yet I can’t quite grasp what it is. Not being a parent myself, I can’t imagine how difficult it is to raise a child, let alone more than one, and yet I can imagine that it would be very difficult to leave one’s children with a nanny or a caregiver. And yet, for so many families, there is no other option, when two incomes are required, and no relatives or friends are available for babysitting. At the same time, though, it seems that Paul and Myriam are blind to many of Louise’s abusive behaviours toward the children, both emotional and physical, and although they occasionally become wary of her actions, they fail to do anything about the situation that strikes them as odd. So who is to blame for this horrible crime? Surely Louise because she is the perpetrator, the child murderer…but could the circumstances of this travesty not have been avoided? I just don’t know. Like I mentioned, I feel as though Slimani is trying to make a statement with The Perfect Nanny, she is trying to offer a moral, and insight to the reader…but I just haven’t uncovered what it is yet. And perhaps that’s just it: maybe each reader is supposed to have a slightly different interpretation of the events and the characters? In any case, what I do know for sure is that The Perfect Nanny is well-written, deep and hard to swallow, and it is not for the faint of heart.
“Adam is dead. Mila will be too, soon.”
❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)
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