Title: The Good Nanny (Lullaby).
Author: Lionel Shriver.
Genre: Fiction, literature.
Publication Date: 2016.
Summary: When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family's chic apartment in Paris's upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau. An exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, and motherhood.
My rating: 8.5/10.
♥ Slowly, Louise tames the child. Day after day, she tells her stories, where the same characters always recur. Orphans, lost little girls, princesses kept as prisoners, and castles abandoned by terrible ogres. Strange beasts—birds with twisted beaks, one-legged bears and melancholic unicorns—populate Louise's landscapes. The little girl falls silent. She stays close to the nanny, attentive, impatient. She asks for certain characters to come back. Where do these stories come from? They emanate from Louise in a continual flood, without her even thinking about it, without her making the slightest effort of memory or imagination. But in what black lake, in what deep forest has the found these cruel tales where the heroes die at the end, after first saving the world?
♥ A gently thrilling, lightly erotic tension burns her throat and her breasts. She runs her tongue over her lips. She wants something. For the first time in a long time, she feels a gratuitous, futile, selfish desire. A desire of her own. Although she loves Paul, her husband's body is weighed down by memories. When he penetrates her, it is her motherly womb that he enters, her heavy belly, where Paul's sperm has so often been accommodated. Her belly of folds and waves, where they built their hose, where so many worries and joys flowered. Paul has massaged her swollen, purple legs. He has seen the blood spread over the sheets. Paul has held her hair back from her forehead while she's vomited, on her knees. He has heard her scream. He has wiped the sweat from her face covered with angiomas while she pushed. He has delivered her children from her body.
♥ Every day, or nearly every day, Myriam receives a notification from her friend Emma. She posts sepia portraits of her two blonde children on social media. Perfect children who play in a park and go to a school that will allow them to blossom, bringing out the gifts that she already senses in them. She gave them unpronounceable names, taken from Nordic mythology, whose meanings she enjoys explaining. Emma is beautiful too, in these photographs. Her husband never appears in any of them, eternally devoted to taking pictures of an ideal family to which he belongs only as a spectator. He does his best to enter the frame, though. That bohemian bourgeoius man with his head and natural wool pullovers, who puts on tight, uncomfortable trousers to go to work.
Myriam would never dare tell Emma this thought that fleetingly crosses her mind, this idea that is not cruel but shameful, and that she has as she observes Louise and her children. We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don't need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free.
♥ Myriam admires this ability that Louise has to really play. When she plays, she is animated by that omnipotence that only children possess.
♥ The screams and cries of babies, their laughter and their tears were the soundtrack to her memories as an only child.
♥ And it's true. As the weeks pass, Louise becomes ever better at being simultaneously invisible and indispensable. Myriam no longer calls to warn her that she's going to be late and Mila no longer asks when Mama is coming home. Louise is there, single-handedly holding up this fragile edifice. Myriam lets herself be mothered. Every day she abandons more tasks to a grateful Louise. The nanny is like those figures at the back of a theater stage who move the sets around in the darkness. She picks up a couch, pushes a cardboard column or a wall with one hand. Louise works in the wings, discreet and powerful. She is the one who controls the transparent wires without which the magic cannot occur. She is Vishnu, the nurturing divinity, jealous and protective; the she-wolf at whose breast they drink, the infallible source of their family happiness.
♥ The cold dawn wakes her and she nearly cries out at the spectacle of the new day. A pure, simple, obvious beauty. A beauty within the reach of every heart.
♥ Back on the guesthouse terrace, the three of them burst out laughing into their hands and Louise puts a finger to her lips. Mustn't wake the little ones. This flash of responsibility suddenly strikes them as ludicrous. They play at being children, these adults whose whole day has been spent straining toward the same child-centered objective. Tonight a new lightheartedness blows over them. Their intoxication relieves the accumulated anxieties and tensions that their progeny has insinuated between them, husband and wife, mother and nanny.
♥ She would like to hold them back, to cling to them, scratch her nails in the stone floor. She would like to put them under glass, like two dancers, frozen and smiling, stuck to the pedestal of a musical box. She thinks that she could stare at them for hours without ever getting bored. That she would be content to watch them live, working in the shadows so that everything was perfect, so that the mechanism never jammed. She has the intimate conviction now, the burning and painful conviction that her happiness belongs to them. That she is theirs and they are hers.
♥ Stéphanie had disappeared. All her life, she had felt like an embarrassment. Her presence disturbed Jacques, her laughter work the children Louise was looking after. Her fat thighs, her heavy figure pressed against the wall in the narrow corridor to let the others pass. She feared blocking the passage, being bumped into, sitting on a chair that someone else wanted. When she spoke, she expressed herself poorly. She laughed and she offended people, no matter how innocent her laughter. She had ended up developing a gift for invisibility, and logically, without fanfare, without warning, as if that had been her manifest destiny all along, she had disappeared.
♥ Just let them get on with it, somewhere out of sight; we don't need to know anything about all this stuff with babies or old people. They were bad times, those ages of servitude, of repeating the same actions. Those ages when the body—monstrous, shameless, a cold and foul-smelling machine—took over everything. Bodies that craved love and liquid.
♥ Solitude was like a vast hole into which Louise watched herself sink. Solitude, which stuck to her flesh, to her clothes, began to model her features, making her move like a little old lady. Solitude leaped at her face at dusk, when night fell and the sounds of family lives rose from the surrounding houses. The light dimmed and the murmur grew louder: laughter, panting, even sighs of boredom.
...Solitude was like a drug that she wasn't sure she wanted to do without. Louise wandered through the streets in a daze, eyes so wide open that they hurt. In her solitude, she started to see other people. To really see them. The existence of others became palpable, vibrant, more real than ever. She observed, in minute detail, the gestures of couples sitting on terraces. The sideways glances of torpid old people. The self-conscious expressions of students who sat on benches and pretended to revise. In squares, outside metro stations, she would recognize the strange parade of the impatient. Like them, she waited for someone. Every day, she would encounter companions in madness: tramps, lunatics, talking to themselves.
The city, back them, was full of madmen.
♥ Parks, on winter afternoons. The drizzle scatters dead leaves. The icy gravel sticks to the children's knees. On benches, on narrow paths, you see those people the world doesn't want anymore. They flee cramped apartments, sad living rooms, armchairs sunk with the imprint of boredom and inertia. They prefer to shiver outside, shoulders hunched and arms crossed. At 4 p.m., idle days seem endless. It is now, in the middle of the afternoon, that you notice the wasted time, that you worry about the coming evening. At this hour, you are ashamed of your uselessness.
Parks, on winter afternoons, are haunted by vagabonds, drifters, tramps, the elderly and unemployed, the sick, the vulnerable. Those who do not work, who produce nothing. Those who do not make money. In spring, of course, the lovers return; clandestine couples find shelter under lime trees, in flowered nooks; tourists photograph statues. But in winter, it;'s something else altogether.
♥ Wafa sometimes feels afraid that she will grow old in one of these parks. That she'll feel her knees crack on these old frozen benches, that she won't be strong enough to lift up a child anymore. Alphonse will grow up. Soon he won't set foot in a park on a winter afternoon. He'll follow the sun. He'll go on vacation. Perhaps one day he'll sleep in one of the rooms of the Gran Hotel, where she used to massage men. This boy she raised will be serviced by one of her sisters or her cousins, on the terrace with its yellow and blue tiles.
"You see? Everything turns around and upside down. His childhood and my old age. My youth and his life as a man. Fate is vicious as a reptile. It always ends up pushing us to the wrong side of the handrail."
♥ They pretended; they tried.
♥ For a few months Paul became childish, irresponsible, ridiculous. He kept secrets and harbored desires of escape. And yet he made no allowances for himself. He knew just how banal his attitude was. All he wanted was not to go home, to be free, to live again. He realized now—too late—that he hadn't lived very much before this. The clothes of a father seemed at once too big for him and too sad.
But it was done now, and he couldn't say that he didn't want it anymore. The children were there—loved, adored, unconditionally—but doubt was insinuating itself everywhere. The children, their smell, their gestures, their desire for him: all of this touched him to a degree that he would never be able to describe. Sometimes he wanted to be a kid too, to put himself in their shoes, to dissolve into childhood. Something was dead and it wasn't only youth or the feeling of being carefree. He wasn't useless anymore. They needed him and he was going to have to deal with that. By becoming a father, ye had acquired principles and certainties, things he had sworn never to have. His generosity had become relative. His passions had grown tepid. His world has shrunk.
♥ She would like to give the children the wildness and whimsy that they are forbidden. There are no rules with her. She doesn't shower them with foolish gifts, like parents trying to compensate for their absences. She doesn't pay attention to the words she uses and she is constantly reprimanded for this by Paul and Myriam.
To annoy her daughter-in-law, she compares the children to "little birds fallen out of their nest." She likes to feel sorry for them having to live in a city, having to put up with rudeness and pollution. She would like to widen the horizons of these children doomed to become sensible middle-class people, at once servile and authoritarian. Doomed to be cowards.
♥ Every time that Myriam sees Sylvie, the memory of that evening oppresses her. That night, she felt as if she were being assaulted, thrown to the ground and stabbed repeatedly with a dagger. Myriam lay there, her guts slashed open, in front of her husband. She didn't have the strength to defend herself against those accusations, which she knew were partly true but which she considered as her lot and that of many other women. Nor for an instant was there even a hint of clemency or gentleness. Not a single piece of advice was offered from mother mother, from woman to woman.
♥ She had been in one of those sleeps so heavy that they leave you feeling sad, disoriented, your stomach full of tears. A sleep so deep, so dark, that you see yourself dying, that you wake up soaked with cold sweat, paradoxically exhausted.
♥ She drinks and the discomfort of living, the shyness of breathing, all this anguish dissolves in the liquid she sips.
♥ Children don't care about the contours of our world. They can guess at its harshness, its darkness, but they don't want to know anything more.
♥ She is fond of these photographs, though. She takes hundreds of them and looks at them in melancholy moments. In the metro, between two meetings, sometimes even during a meal, she scrolls through portraits of her children. She also believes it is her duty as a mother to immortalize these instants, to possess the proof of past joys. One day she will be able to show them to Mila or Adam. She will recount her memories and the image will awaken old sensations, details, an atmosphere. She has always been told that children are just an ephemeral happiness, a fleeting vision, a restlessness. An eternal metamorphosis. Round faces that are gradually imbued with seriousness without us even realizing. So, every chance she gets, she looks at her children from behind the screen of her iPhone. For her, those small beings are the most beautiful landscape in the world.