There are very few books that make me feel uncomfortable and uneasy as I read them; this book is one of them. It’s a novel that looks at race and class, what it means to be a working mother, in middle-class Paris and puts them under an unflinching microscope that will leave many readers questioning the way they see the world.
The story begins with the murder of two small children, their perfect nanny with her wrists slit. This is not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit: why has this French Mary Poppins- a tiny woman beloved by her charges and relied upon increasingly by her ever more begrudging employers- suddenly morphed to a monster?
As I read, I realised that the reason I was so uncomfortable as I read was that this novel is incredibly claustrophobic. The flat where Myriam and Paul live with their two children is described as being tiny; Louise herself is also tiny and she lives in a drab little slum-like flat. The children- particularly the daughter- are difficult. It’s a life that, although it takes place in the vast and beautiful city of Paris, is centred smack bang in the middle of a small world of petty jealousy, maternal guilt and the hidden worlds of domestic staff.
We are slowly shown Louise’s life outside that of the children, her layers peeled away like an onion as we see how awful her life has been, how desperately she thinks she needs the life of her employers, her small cruelties towards her charges. We also see how Myriam uses Louise to assuage her guilt at leaving her children and working hard as a lawyer; how Paul distances himself from his family both before and after the nanny arrives. Imagine Mr Banks, but even less interested.
This is one of those books that I didn’t want to read- but didn’t want to put down.