It is my pleasure to post my colleague John’s guest post:
Leila Silmani’s The Perfect Nanny is one of those novels you will hear about. Much like Herman Koch’s The Dinner, it will creep into conversations and steal across book club discussions for months to come.
While on the surface the novel is about a family’s relationship with a mentally unstable nanny with tragic results. But the reader is confronted with the tragedy in the first line of the novel:
“The baby is dead.”
A challenging move, beginning the novel with the bodies of murdered children. It’s a daring move. One that Slimani uses to color the humanity of her characters. None escape. They all become soaked in unsympathetic meanness, cold emotional distance, and selfishness. It’s an interesting trick which Slimani uses it with surgical precision to push the reader into a numb acceptance that everyone in the novel might just be awful and has it coming.
Even the children. Such as they are. They are so underwritten. The reader begs to connect to them, but only sees them through the compromised eyes of the Slimani’s adult characters – who ignore and fail their children over and over again. But would The Perfect Nanny become so horrible, such a painful marathon into hell as to be unreadable if the children were fully drawn lovable characters? Yes.
But probably the most interesting threads in the novel are the ones spun around the idea of domestic employment, itself. The sketches we get of the world of the nannies at the playground are rich, poetic textures which form impressions of a wealth of character and experience. But character and experience just outside the novel’s narrative – on the edges hinting at beauty and childhood and safety.
Aside from those, the other thread is how ultimately dislocating it is to employ a domestic servant in the 21st century. The odd friendliness that somehow becomes endless, unfounded suspicion. The unfortunate transformation of the family unit into a small business with a single employee. The co-managers of mother and father, with the untrained, child forepersons are wholly unequipped to deal with the stark realities of management. This unfitness turns into unintentional hostility, and then a specific cruelty, that is like battery acid burning through a trash pile.
It is an interesting book. And I can understand why the French literary world exploded with prizes and praise. And why the novel is slowly making its horrible mark on us, as well. The Perfect Nanny is a profound disturbance, one whose resonance will long ring in our ears.
That, and it will make a fine movie as long as they cast Louise, correctly