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book review

French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani’s book The Perfect Nanny is a bestseller in Europe and was the winner of the 2016 Prix Goncourt.JOEL SAGET/AFP / Getty Images

Imagine a book that wins an esteemed French literary prize and then flies off the shelves at Wal-Mart and Target. This is what's expected of the English translation of Chanson Douce, the second novel from Moroccan-French author Leila Slimani – already a bestseller in Europe and winner of the 2016 Prix Goncourt. A blurb on the back of the North American paperback calls The Perfect Nanny the "French Gone Girl"; it's an interesting comparison considering the 2012 Gillian Flynn novel sold millions of copies but wasn't so much as longlisted for any major literary prize.

The Perfect Nanny's double life as mass-market hit and serious literary novel isn't too hard to understand. Based loosely on the 2012 news story of a New York Upper West Side nanny who murdered two children in her care, the novel has the ingredients for both a sensationalist crime thriller and a staid investigation of our anxieties about contemporary child care. The international nanny industry is fraught with ethical and economic questions that implicate women's rights on both sides (as employers and employees) and, in one sense – an impressive one – Slimani's novel is a parable for what happens when we exculpate ourselves from the problematic systems that sustain our privilege. In another, it parodies anti-feminist fears of ambitious mothers in the work force.

Slimani starts at the ending: In the first chapter, the children are found dead and the nanny has slit her wrists. On a narrative level, we have the story before it's told and so the suspense is entirely about the how and why. With a subject that so clearly grazes themes of race, immigration, power and gender, the why is crucial, and waiting for its reveal lets Slimani cleverly play against our expectations.

For the first few chapters, I thought race and migration would be inextricable from the motive. When young, upper-middle-class Parisians Paul and Myriam Massé set out to hire a nanny after the birth of their second child, Myriam has a racist encounter with the director of the agency. Myriam is of North African background and the director brusquely assumes she's seeking employment. When she explains that she wants to hire a nanny, the director becomes instantly obsequious. Later, when the couple interviews a series of prospective nannies, Myriam refuses to hire a Moroccan woman with 20 years of experience, fearing "a tacit complicity and familiarity" would grow between them. They reject Gigi from the Philippines and Grace from the Ivory Coast and hire the only white applicant, a French woman named Louise. Suddenly the why isn't about race any more; we suspect the motive is class even before we learn about the debts Louise has incurred from her dead husband, the physical abuse she suffered at his hand, the collapsed shower and rotting wood in her cheap apartment and her inability to pay the rent.

Slimani uses a shifting third-person perspective to narrate. It's not entirely psychologically omniscient – we never get different viewpoints side-by-side in the same section – but it can't quite fall under the category of "close third-person" either. There's too much distance, too much a sense of an all-knowing commentary as opposed to the narration fusing with respective characters' minds. I picture the novel's structure as a pinwheel, with points-of-view bending into each other without overlapping, the story spinning to its inevitable end. This conceit is echoed in the prose itself, which feels clipped, detached and almost, insidiously, complicit. At times, you can practically believe that the novel is narrated by the evil inscribed in its catalyzing act.

The pinwheel is a useful image in a second sense; I found the novel more notable in construction and form than emotionally or intellectually involving. The perspectives fit together appealingly, but none have that much depth. Slimani's examination of class never feels fully realized; she seems to suggest the idea of poverty and the humiliations that come with it, rather than fully inhabiting them. When Louise starts a relationship with a man who lives in subsidized housing, I couldn't stop thinking of the much sharper evocation of class in Zoë Heller's 2003 Notes on a Scandal – another novel with a double life on commercial and literary markets. Heller's sensory description of a council flat from the perspective of an upper-class woman has haunted me for what it was able to relay about the character's haughtiness and insensitivity.

Slimani is still deft at presenting themes of motherhood, class and privilege, but the novel performs more than it's able to reveal. The title character is never shown to be delusional or psychotic; her trajectory from perfect nanny to child-killer doesn't actually make much psychological sense. To the extent that the book can still operate as a page-turning thriller, I'm not sure how much that authenticity matters. But to the extent that the novel can touch upon what would lead a sane woman to commit this crime – insofar as the nanny's twisted heart might, metaphorically, point toward concentric rings of socio-economic evil, it matters very much.

Globe and Mail dance critic and arts contributor Martha Schabas is the author of the novel Various Positions.

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