Leïla Slimani: The Writer Missing from Your Bookshelf


There is an assortment of emotions one experiences when finishing a profound novel that has spoken to one’s soul. Without warning, you have become attached to a voice you have never met. You have found friends, lovers, or even enemies among its finest characters. You may have even become a part of ‘The Happy Few’ readers who understand your writer-friend better than anyone else; the readers who the writer trusts will see the truth behind their words. A writer can become a friend and a companion for the road; yet, all good things must come to an end. So, what happens when it all must come to a close, when you reach the conclusion, the final paragraph, the last word of the novel? You must, and forgive me for being bearer of bad news, learn to begin again. You have to open yourself up to another narrative voice – but how do you choose one? Change is burdensome. You need something new. What about something to send your emotions into turmoil? The novels of Leïla Slimani cemented a disconcerting impression on my mind. I became at once repulsed and yet captivated by her plots, characters and raw literary style. I had found novels that had the capacity to excite me by unsettling all of my emotions, by making me feel uncomfortable, by forcing me to feel outside of myself. So, Mon cher lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère, let me have the pleasure of introducing you to some of Slimani’s works that will guarantee to fulfil your literary yearnings. 

Winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2016, Leïla Slimani is placed amongst the greatest of French writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Marie NDiaye and Marcel Proust. She is the twelfth woman to win this prestigious literary prize. Slimani was then awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) for her significant contributions to French literature and culture, whilst also being chosen by President Emmanuel Macron as the ambassador for francophonie in 2017. Born in Morocco, Leïla Slimani is labelled a French-Moroccan and/or Francophone writer, however, this is not a title that the writer chooses to embrace. In interviews, Slimani openly refuses to be categorized, placing emphasis on her individual intelligence over her national and ethnical identity. She claims that writing provides her with a sense of liberation and believes that at her writing desk she is no longer a Moroccan, French, or even a woman. It is this liberty that allows Slimani to separate herself from her subject matters, which are disturbing and challenging. I am here to highlight some of my favourite Slimani works that should be part of your bookshelf.  

Lullaby/Chanson douce: the novel that will stop you sleeping.

Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt for her novel unsettling novel Lullaby / Chanson douce (2016).  Beginning with a spine-chilling crime scene, Lullaby delves into the breakdown of the relationship between a nanny, a mother and her children. The novel takes the reader through the difficulties and the painful solitude of a nanny, Louise, whose entire existence depends on that of her employers. The bourgeois couple likewise become so reliant on Louise that they can’t seem to live their daily lives without her. That is to say that Louise runs their household in order for the mother to restart her career as a lawyer. The novel calls into question how the relationship between employers and employees in the twenty-first century home becomes complicated, or rather, unstructured and ungoverned. It is questionable whether Louise is in fact exploited by a selfish family in these scenes. Is the mother not just trying her best to have a career and be a decent mum? Slimani seems to show the guilt which mothers who want careers must go through in order to be deemed both successful and a decent mother. She plays on the fears of the stranger in the house, whilst at the same time asking us to consider the invisibility of women that are placed in low-skilled jobs, such as nannies and cleaners. It is a novel I recommend both in English and in French, but I warn the faint-hearted reader to approach this text with caution. This is a novel that intends to disturb you. Its opening line will jolt you: ‘The baby is dead’, and it is the nanny who is responsible. This blunt and desensitized style perhaps echoes the opening of Albert Camus’s famous existential novel, The Stranger/L’Étranger (1942): ‘Mother died today.’ Slimani’s style is simplistic and captivating, making the novel a perfect recommendation for those wanting to improve their French language skills. For certain readers, like French journalist and active feminist Lauren Bastide, however, Lullaby was overwhelming. Despite her appreciation for its literary genius, Bastide declare that she hated this book due to the upheaval of emotions that Slimani causes. I will continue to recommend it to the reader, however, for something out of the ordinary in the most banal of settings: the home. It will grip you from its very first sentence to its last. 

Sex and lies/Sexe et Mensonges: Women’s voices.

Like her previous novel Lullaby, Sex and lies/Sexe et Mensonges (2017) also tackles a hard-hitting subject matter that Slimani handles with a highly critical gaze. Sex and Lies captures the voices of Moroccan women and their struggles in the patriarchal society of Morocco. 

With her use of first-hand accounts, Slimani confronts the difficulties of women living in a society which prohibits, by law, sex before marriage, homosexuality and prostitution. Transcribing these compelling stories, Slimani describes the hypocrisy of a society which forces women to take either the position of virgin or wife, whilst allowing men a certain sexual liberty. Although Slimani’s own upbringing in Morocco is included in the text, the voices of other Moroccan women have their rightful, dignified space in her work. They discuss the lack of sexual education that women receive and the way in which women in Morocco are forced to live restricted lives under the law. I recommend this text to the reader who wishes to delve into a world that is perhaps a lot different from their own. It will present women deprived of the freedom to desire and to love as freely as the Western world allows.

For those wishing to delve into the creative-writing world of Leïla Slimani, Comment j’écris (2018) is an interview with the writer about her writing practice, whilst Le Diable est dans les details (2016) includes several short creative pieces. These are ideal texts for those learning French or wanting to delve further into the life of a writer. For those wanting to hear more about Leïla Slimani, Le Poudre features a podcast episode interviewing her in French, with an included dubbed version in English. 

Image credit : ActualLitté via flikr



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