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When 2 Children Are Murdered, 'The Perfect Nanny' Is Anything But

The French-Moroccan author Leila Slimani has just released her breakout novel, <em>The Perfect Nanny</em>, in the U.S.
Lionel Bonaventure
AFP/Getty Images
The French-Moroccan author Leila Slimani has just released her breakout novel, The Perfect Nanny, in the U.S.

Leila Slimani's new book, The Perfect Nanny, begins with four haunting words: "The baby is dead."

It tells the story of a Parisian family and their nanny — who starts to unravel, and commits an unspeakable crime.

"I had the feeling that she was like a plate that you put every day on the table, and she breaks every day a little bit," Slimani says. "And one day you put it on the table and she breaks it into pieces."

Originally published in France as Chanson Douce, the novel earned Slimani the country's top literary award, the Prix Goncourt. It's now available in the U.S.

We spoke on how Slimani came to write a novel based around such a disturbing topic.

"I think it's sort of a primitive fear," she says. "I remember the first time I saw my child, of course I felt love, but I think that the first feeling that I felt was fear. And I looked at him and I was like, 'I'm not alone any more.' Someone needs me. And if something happens to him, I don't know what is going to happen to me. I don't know if I'm going to survive. So I wanted to speak about this fear."

Interview Highlights

On the idea behind the framing of the book's murders

When I wrote the first version of the book, just about the family and the nanny and their life, it was very boring. And I was like, how am I going to do, to build a book that is not boring, but a book that is also about our life? The way of a nanny takes care of the children, and makes food and feeds them, and everything.

I read an article in a French magazine about a murder in a family in New York, and I was very shocked, of course, by this tragedy. And I began to make research about all the murders of children by nannies in France, in United States, and I kind of do a mix between all those stories. And I had the idea of this particular murder.

On the intense portrayal of the relationship between a mother and her children's caregiver

You know, I think that's a very, very complex relationship, because this is a relationship of power, but not as simple as you can think, because the mother is the boss of the nanny, but the nanny has a sort of power too, because she takes care of the children. They live in the same home, but the home is not the home of the nanny. She's a sort of a member of the family — everyone says, "Oh, she's one of the family" — but actually, she's not. You want your children to love the nanny, but at the same time, you want to stay the mother, and you want to be the most-loved. So there is a sort of jealousy between the mother and the nanny.

On identifying with the nanny character Louise, who we know will murder two children

And you know, I really wanted to write about the work of all those women coming from Philippines, from Africa, from Maghreb, from Russia to take care of the children of the Occidental woman. And I was saying to myself, without those women, other women couldn't work. They make it possible for us to entertain, to have a working life, but at the same times, we don't value them, we don't see them. It's like, you know, the Russian dolls — there's a woman inside a woman inside a woman. If you want a woman to work, at the end there is always another woman inside the woman taking care of the house and the children. We do as if it was easy, as if we could do everything. But actually we need help. And those women, they give us a lot of help.

On the American title of the book

I thought it was a very good title, especially for the American public. I think because — I watch a lot, of course, of American movies and American TV shows, and I'm always very fascinated by the image of the perfect mother. The soccer mom, as you say now? And maybe our current generation is the first generation of woman whose mother told us you can do everything. You can marry, or not marry. You can have children, or not. You can do whatever you want. But how can we do everything? Our mother, they didn't tell us how exhausting it was, and how much anxiety we were going to feel doing so much things.

Ian Stewart and Viet Le edited and produced this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.