When it was published early last year, Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby had readers aflutter. The book’s opening said it all – “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds” – chilling in its simplicity and a dizzyingly audacious starting point for a novel.
The rest of Lullaby hurtles us towards this gruesome inevitability, as we get to know the nanny – who will go on to kill the two children in her charge – as well as the wealthy Parisian couple who hire her, only to find themselves in an increasing and reluctant state of dependence. While a large part of the novel’s magnetism lies in the horror of knowing what is to come, Slimani doesn’t skip a beat in leading us there, drawing out undercurrents of race, class, motherhood and the suffocating ties of family as the plot festers with resentment and a mounting, quiet menace.
Of course, the English-reading world, even as it bought over a million copies of the book, was late to the blood-soaked party. The novel was originally published in French as the bestselling Chanson douce in 2016, winning Slimani the prestigious Prix Goncourt prize, leading French President Emmanuel Macron to appoint her an emissary for promoting the use of the French language and landing her on the cover of fashion magazines. It was bound to be a tough act to follow.
Perhaps then, it’s a dubious relief for Slimani that for English language readers, hungry for more by the French-Moroccan author, the latest offering is one that she had already written – Adèle is a translation by Sam Taylor( who also translated Lullaby) of Slimani’s debut French novel, which was published in 2014.
Not quite ‘Madame Bovary’
The novel tells the story of 35-year-old journalist Adèle, who has lost all interest in her job, lives in Paris, is reluctantly raising a young son and is married to the seemingly well-meaning but dull Richard, a doctor who wants to move his family to the countryside – an idea his wife finds abhorrent.
True to style, Slimani makes it clear from the very first page that Adèle’s life is barely in her control, dictated by an all-consuming desire to have sex. The seemingly perfect existence that ticks all the boxes – “as a wife and mother, she is haloed with a respectability that no one can take away from her” – is structured around a parallel life of trysts in hotel rooms, bars, alleyways with strangers, acquaintances, her friends’ partners, her husband’s colleagues, whoever makes sense in the moment.
Adèle is no modern-day Emma Bovary, however, much as Slimani may have intended her to be. (In a direct homage, the house that her doctor husband is obsessed with buying is in Normandy, where Madame Bovary is set). In an interview about the novel, Slimani said she wanted to interrogate who that archetype of classic literature would be today: “Who is the married woman who is bored, who is trying to find something, now?”
This idea of “boredom” is pushed on readers by the novel’s blurb as well. But the protagonist that emerges from Slimani’s novel is not bored – she’s numbingly, unfailingly, deeply unhappy. Adèle doesn’t seek sex as an act of rebellion, joy, adventure or cold comfort, but as one of destruction. She wants “someone to grab her and smash her skull into the glass door...to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole”. She wants to be “a doll in an ogre’s garden” (which is where the title for the French original Dans le jardin de l’ogre comes from).
An unsatisfactory life
Sex in Adèle is violent, almost always unsatisfying and never enough. When her husband is injured in an accident that she is partially responsible for, Adèle wonders about how things could have been better if he had died – how a widow can be “forgiven almost anything” before realising that she would be “completely defenceless” without him.
Adèle’s move from one frenetic encounter to another soon becomes repetitive and detailed to a dizzying degree. Readers of Lullaby will hardly find the latter surprising. But while the carefully choreographed forays into the realms of taboo and discomfort work to satisfying effect in that novel, here it can often feel deadening, flattening the narrative as it moves towards what we know will be inevitable discovery of her double life.
Slimani’s writing style – short, relentless sentences, suffocating in their closeness to characters – works in a similar manner. In her story of a murderous nanny, the effect is one of standing uncomfortably near a spluttering hot fire, watching, entranced, as it perfectly browns a hunk of meat. In Adèle, the result is congealed, clammy.
Slimani began writing Adèle when the trial of Dominique Straus-Kahn for multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, marked by lurid details of alleged sex addiction, was in the news. Early in the novel, while rushing out early in the morning to visit a man, Adèle tells herself she’s “thinking like a drug addict, like a gambler”. Slimani, however, is hesitant to call her protagonist’s behaviour an addiction. “I’m a writer, not a doctor, so I can’t really make a diagnosis,” she said in an interview with her publisher.
An opaque protagonist
In her resoluteness to keep her protagonist free of the reader’s sympathy, Slimani also denies her any modicum of empathy. On this front, Adèle follows a trajectory that is the opposite of Lullaby. At the end of that novel, you’re shown how a woman could have murdered two children she so deeply loved – you cannot condone, understand, or empathise with it, but miraculously, you see it. Adèle remains opaque and riddled with inexplicable contradictions.
Even as we are shown her working class background, an indifferent and callous mother and her childhood home, in contrast to the bourgeois lifestyle she now leads, craves and yet despises, Adèle’s motivations remain unknown.
We are told how, as a teenager, she comes across a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (a passage from which finds a place in the book’s epigraph as well). This particular passage from the book thrills her: “The excitement she felt was all the greater because she was excited against her will. In other words, her soul did condone the proceedings, albeit covertly. But she also knew that if the feeling of excitement was to continue, her soul’s approval would have to keep mute. The moment it said yes, the moment it tried to take an active part in the love scene, the excitement would subside.”
If Slimani’s intention here is to point at a first instance where Adèle recognises herself, it feels like a puzzling one. As a pivotal moment in her life, it feels even more so – seemingly instigated by a book that lent itself to expositions of philosophy, lyricism and subversion in smoky living rooms with cheap whiskey a decade ago but today is reflective not so much of the male gaze, but a derisive scowl of contempt.
While I was grateful that Slimani is too skilled and sensitive a writer to invent isolated or episodic early traumas to explain what propels Adèle, even at the end of the novel, it’s hard to know even who she really is. And for a character who is plagued most profoundly by a deep loneliness, it feels like the cruelest punishment of all.
If it were not a display of almost unpardonable naïveté to talk of fairness in a world as unforgiving as ours, I would say it’s unfortunate that Slimani’s highly anticipated follow-up for the Anglophone world is in the form of an earlier, less accomplished novel. But within the disappointment, there is comfort in knowing she has, in fact, been spared the curse of the brilliant, unmatchable debut. If these two novels are anything to go by, Slimani is a writer who gets better with time. We should wait eagerly for the next one.
Adele, Leila Slimani, Faber and Faber.