There are some feelings that seem real only when you are experiencing them. Once they pass, or the situation that conjured them dissipates, you look back on those emotional states like a tourist reminiscing on a long-past trip.
For instance, when I worked as a live-in Nanny in Spain for a summer when I was 17, I vaguely remember feeling at once disgusted by and in love with the family. I felt captive a lot of the time but not so oppressed that I had to quit and flee. I was kept, or I kept myself in the fraught space between kin and staff that inevitable gets condensed with domestic labor.
In The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani hovers over social situations that are long-past for me, stirring up a micro-clime of forgotten feelings. The short and heady novel follows the foreshortened arc of one family and their nanny. The new parents begin desperate, they hire Louise and gain their lives back, the children fall in love with their caretaker and she even joins them on vacation. Then, Louise, who is destitute and gravely mentally ill, begins to transgress more and more boundaries. She does so slowly, quietly, and with a lot of tact. The parents don’t realize that she is troubled until it’s much too late—she is practically living in their house by this point. If you have heard about this novel you probably know that the children die on page 1. This fact makes the book scandalous before you even pick it up, but I insist that the real sensation is how Slimani excavates the complicated feelings involved in care work.
Slimani has written a sly and horrific page-turner that takes readers into the living tissue of a feminist labor politics. In one of the most quietly devastating passages, Wafa, a Moroccan nanny who befriends Louise at the park, wonders about her weary future and the class-bound cycles that her life and the life of her white French charge will likely follow:
“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 Grand 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.”
The perils of growing up, of having babies, the facts of the infant and senile body, and the need to hire other people to “service” those bodies are the rigging on which Slimani has hung a sexy, dark, and salacious story.
Sierra Dickey is a writer, organizer, and educator currently teaching ESL in immigrant and refugee populations in Vermont and Western Massachusetts. She writes a weekly literary newsletter called Stay Fluent and collects her other writing work on sierradickey.com.