The French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s second novel, published in France in 2016 and translated into English as Lullaby, is about a nanny who works for a bourgeois professional Parisian couple, and murders the two children in her care. It caused a huge stir globally, won the Prix Goncourt (she was the first Moroccan woman to win the prize), and caught the attention of President Macron, who appointed Slimani his representative for the “promotion of French language and culture”. The novel is uncannily good at searching out the uncomfortable pressure points where class hurts and privilege excludes and crucifies. Interestingly, Slimani deliberately confounds the usual intersections of race with class – most of the nannies in the book are Maghrebi or African, but the murdering one is white, and her employer, the children’s mother, is a French-Moroccan lawyer. Lullaby is a shocking and affecting book, but in the end I think a confusing one. Sentences succeed one another in a suspenseful tension which depends too much on our helpless fascination with the facts of the crime; the novel’s penetration of the privileged couple’s unease and the nanny’s loneliness can’t finally deliver what it seems to promise, which is any explanation of what’s happened. That could only be a matter for psychopathology. The children’s deaths are pitiable and terrible, but have no political meaning.
In an interview with the New Yorker, about a short story she wrote from a rapist’s point of view, Slimani said: “I write about the things I am most afraid of.” She does have an instinct for whichever detail will deliver the strongest electric shock, but her effort doesn’t always feel directed inwards, towards the truth of her own fear; it can feel more like display, playing to the response – shock, fear, arousal – of her reader. (This is even more true for her first novel Adèle, about a female sex addict.) But from the first page of her third novel, Le pays des autres – translated by Sam Taylor as The Country of Others – something feels different. This new book draws significantly on the history of Slimani’s own family, and it’s as if some positioning has shifted, deep inside her writing. In Lullaby her style consisted of a succession of jabbing short denotative sentences.
Louise stands there alone, like an idiot. A bitter taste stings her tongue. She wants to throw up. The children aren’t there. She walks with her head lowered now, in tears. The children are on holiday. She’s alone; she’d forgotten. She hits her own forehead anxiously.
The sentences in The Country of Others are layered, and more laden with material; the writing is more exploratory, it reaches outward. And a complex world pushes back against her words, changing the quality of her attention to it.
When Mathilde asked what he had died of, this father-in-law she’d never met, Amine touched his belly and silently nodded. Later, Mathilde found out what had happened. After returning from Verdun, Kadour Belhaj suffered with chronic stomach pains that no Moroccan healer or European doctor was able to allay. So this man, who boasted of his love of reason, his education, his talent for foreign languages, dragged himself, weighed down by shame and despair, to a basement occupied by a chouafa. The sorceress tried to convince him that he was bewitched, that some powerful enemy was responsible for his suffering.
The Country of Others begins in 1944 when Mathilde, a passionate young Frenchwoman from Alsace, falls in love with Amine, a handsome Moroccan soldier fighting for the French. She marries him and after the war they go together to live in Morocco, first with his mother and siblings in the city of Meknes, and then to the hectares of stony countryside that Amine has inherited from his father, who wanted to build a farm there and grow fruit and almond trees. When his father spoke about “Our land!”, “he uttered these words not in the way of nationalists or colonialists – in the name of moral principles or an ideal – but simply as a landowner who was happy to own land”. Slimani’s grandmother was in fact an Alsatian girl, Anne Dhobb, who married a Moroccan soldier; together they built up a fruit farm near Meknes. Dhobb published her own memoir in Morocco in 2004, and presumably Slimani was able to draw on this in writing her novel. Nothing feels in the least dutiful or cautious, however, in her creation of her fictional characters; she still works her dangerous magic and delivers shocks, imagining the violence of their desires and rages.
[Mathilde] never wearied of Amine’s hands, his mouth, the smell of his skin, which – she understood now – was somehow connected with the air of this land. She was completely bewitched by him and begged him to stay inside her for as long as possible, even when they were falling asleep or talking.
When Amine finds out that his sister Selma is in love with a glamorous French airman – and is pregnant with his child – he threatens her and Mathilde with his revolver.
For an instant he thought about shooting himself. That would solve everything. There would be no need for any more words or explanations. And his best jacket would be covered in blood. He dropped the revolver and, without looking at them, left the room.
That swerving away from catastrophe – at the last moment, just about – is something like the essential gesture of this novel. Slimani’s charged language, feeling for the fracture lines inside individuals and between them, and between different cultures, prepares us for the worst: which comes close, but never quite comes home. Accommodations are made within a difficult marriage; the boundaries between cultures turn out to be more porous than they appear at first. Mathilde is volatile and histrionic but she’s also valiantly inventive, finding ways to adjust to her new country, and to love it. Amine doesn’t kill Selma – although he has plans for her, in relation to his devoted aide-de-camp Mourad, who’s broken and half-mad after his experiences of the war in Indochina. An old labourer, from the douar where the farm servants live, warns Mathilde that if he comes for her at night she mustn’t open the door, because he’ll have to kill her. “It will be because I’ve ended up believing the words of those who say that if you want to go to heaven you must kill French people.” But he doesn’t come.
All these tensions converge in the person of Aïsha, Amine and Mathilde’s daughter, who is clever and solitary and anxious. She’s sent to at a convent school in town, where she dreads the contempt of the other girls because she belongs neither to the whispering Moroccans nor the “hopscotch-playing Europeans”: her hair is frizzy, her clothes are homemade and ugly, she arrives late for school in a van full of crates of fruit for the market. Sister Marie-Solange, who sees the Moroccan peasants as Old Testament characters, teaches her to pray to Jesus in her trouble – though Aïsha learns not to mention Jesus to her father outside school. She’s happiest when she can escape from the fraught farmhouse, to play with the servants’ and farm workers’ children in the douar – five miserable shacks and a few mounds of white stones, “a reminder that ancestors had been buried there”.
This story of class and race and nation in the early years of Amine and Mathilde’s marriage is the first part of a planned trilogy; it will be fascinating to see how the rest unfolds. The struggle for independence swirls around the farm at the novel’s end; Amine’s embittered brother Omar is committed to the nationalist cause. In a wonderfully imagined climactic scene, little Aïsha celebrates as the French colonists’ houses burn, hardly knowing what it all means, but caught up in the transforming power of the moment. “Let them burn, she thought. Let them go away. Let them die.”
• The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor, is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.