“Chanson Douce” has been translated into eighteen languages, with seventeen more to come. The title means “sweet song,” which was rendered “Lullaby” for the British edition. The American one, which comes out in January, will be called “The Perfect Nanny.” John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, told me, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership.” He name-checked “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” and said, “We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.” The book, however, is subtler than a typical psychological thriller. The subject matter is, for some people, a nonstarter. One reader complained, on Goodreads, “We got off on the wrong foot—I was expecting to meet an overworked but conscientious couple who found ‘The Perfect Nanny’ who made their lives lovely before things went awry. Will she grow attracted to the husband? Will she become obsessed with the wife? Lose one of the kids? Maybe a kidnapping?” She gave the book a single star, recalling that she’d wondered if the pages had been bound out of order after reading the first line: “The baby is dead.”
It is hard to think of a more primal sentence. It out-Hemingways Hemingway, shearing sentimentality from the dread. Absolutely everything feels like hubris when you’re working backward from that conclusion. “To begin with the death of the children, it’s very daring,” the French novelist David Foenkinos, a friend of Slimani’s, told me. “Generally, she’s a woman who dares, who fears nothing. There are probably childhood wounds that have made her extremely brave.” As a narrative technique, this front-loading is surprisingly propulsive. I read “Chanson Douce” as though I were running away from those four words, with the sense that they could cause me real harm, that the only way to master the fear was to outread it. The book felt less like an entertainment, or even a work of art, than like a compulsion. I found it extraordinary.
When I set out to cross England on foot, I wasn’t thinking about it in literary terms. I was thinking in terms of survival. The path was long, 320km; the weather, on a good day, unpredictable. I had just sent off a novel that had been five years in the making; the walk was a reward. I would spend two weeks, mostly alone, my head blissfully empty, no book on my back. Just the essentials: food, water, waterproofs, map and compass. A thin, borrowed copy of Tove Jansson’s stories. And the pebble I’d picked up at St Bees on the west coast to throw into Robin Hood’s Bay on the east.
Free of the book, I thought, my mind would wander over landscape and skyscape, the folds of field and forest, fell and valley, moor and mountain. I regarded the dawn of the first day as a child might a holiday. Here you are, it whispered. You’re free.
But it turns out that long-distance walking is, in fact, a lot like writing a novel. The two began to mirror each other in ways I didn’t recognise until the halfway mark, when my negligible navigation skills found me lost, again, in cow-trodden fields, with no waymarkers in sight.
Charles Lamb, the English essayist, hoped his last breath would be inhaled through a pipe and exhaled in a pun. We can’t all go out with such style. Two books are here to help us prepare.
In music terms, these books — Margareta Magnusson’s “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” and Perre Coleman Magness’s “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook” — will assist you not like roadies, but like end-of-the-roadies.