Folks. Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny is not good. Why are people continuing to suggest other people read this book? Why does my normally very reliable best of the year from the New York Times include this title? I can only imagine it’s because people like the macabre and they like admiring people with nice things? Or they like the never-ending question of whether women who work and have children are to blame for everything bad that ever happens to their children (spoiler the answer is almost always ‘yes’).
The book opens with the death of two children (yeah, so if that’s not going to be your plot comfort cozy, best to avoid) at the hands of their Perfect Nanny. What unfolds then is the slow unfurling of how the nanny is not-so-perfect, and the cues that were very clear to the parents, but how the parents, too tired and too selfish, continue to overlook these Warning Signs so that their lives can continue to unfold with late night dinners and No Worries Because Nanny.
The nanny herself gets rendered as utterly pathetic (which is probably fitting someone who murders two children? except for character nuance?) because of her loneliness, poverty, utter lack of self-worth, ugliness, desperation. Her redeeming moments are those where she loves and plays with the children, and so I suppose we are meant – as the parents do – to overlook the rest because she is so good with kids.
I don’t know. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for child murder? Or the unnuanced portrait of the nanny as Monster. Or the slippery line of blaming the mother for her ambition and desire to do things other than parent. But other people have liked this one A Lot, so you’ve probably read it already and have other opinions. Do tell.
For something completely different and delightful, I offer you Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material (not to be confused with the super creepy looking 2018 movie). No this 2013 gem is funny, smart, generous and playful. It follows Arjan Banga, an Indo-British twenty-something as he grapples with the death of his father and having to take over the family business of running a corner store. In alternating chapters we also follow two sisters, Kamaljit and Surinder, as they grow up in (we later learn the same) corner store: both trying to sort out what it means to be British and Indian and Sikh in a political and cultural moment (and small town) where everyone around them wants them to be one thing and not the other.
The novel traces themes of family, belonging and racial and cultural identity with a truly impressive balance of sensitivity and humour. It’s a delightful book where you never feel like you’re reading a book about Identity, but instead that you’ve slipped into something like a romantic comedy, except all the characters are interesting, the writing is fresh and sharp, and the themes are complex enough to not feel overplayed. I hope you missed this novel in 2013 so that you can discover it now and begin your 2020 with a hopeful and kind novel and not with Twitter or Facebook. Do yourself a favour. Read a book. Ideally this one.