In late 2012, news broke around the world that a nanny on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was accused of fatally stabbing two young children in her care. Paris Match deemed the perpetrator of this “inexplicable” act “la nounou de l’horreur”—the nanny of horror. As the children bled in the bathtub, reports said, the nanny—who was so close with her well-to-do employers that they had earlier that year spent several days visiting her relatives in the Dominican Republic—slashed her own throat. (She survived, and has pleaded not guilty to killing the children.) To most parents, the headlines were a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of children and the cruelty of which their adult caregivers are capable. To the French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani, who had a toddler of her own, the tragedy was the perfect creative catalyst. She knew she wanted to write about a nanny; now she had her opening.
Slimani’s Goncourt Prize–winning 2016 novel, Chanson Douce—published this month in English as The Perfect Nanny—lands its biggest punch on the first page. “The baby is dead,” Slimani writes. “It took only a few seconds.” His sister, still alive when the ambulance arrives, has had her lungs punctured, “her head smashed violently against the blue chest of drawers.” Louise—the nanny, the killer—is not yet named, but her presence is noted. The paramedics “had to save the other one too, of course. With the same level of professionalism; without emotion. She didn’t know how to die. She only knew how to give death.” This is no mystery novel. The question at the heart of the book is neither who nor how but why.