In 2016, the 35-year-old Franco-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani burst onto the French literary scene. She won the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, with Chanson douce (translated in the U.S. as The Perfect Nanny), a forceful novel inspired by real-life events in America. Transposing the action from the U.S. to Paris, the book narrates the story of a “killer nanny” convicted of murdering the two children of a wealthy New York family. Slimani’s chilling tragedy reexamines relations between different social classes.
In her debut novel, published in 2014 in France as Dans le jardin de l’ogre and now translated into English as Adèle, she writes with the same penetrating gaze about the cold, unfathomable pain that drives a person to extreme behavior. Adèle, a young journalist and mother of a three-year-old boy, is married to a surgeon and, to all appearances, has everything to be happy. But she is driven by an insatiable urge: an addiction to sex that she satisfies with sordid encounters in sleazy hotels with men she meets at work or at parties. Her husband Richard does not see, or refuses to see, what is happening because he is caught up in his dream of a cozy life in the countryside.
The novel paints the portrait of a drowning woman who sinks deeper and deeper into an existential void that nothing can fill. Adèle is no joyful libertine. Like Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, she is consumed by boredom and dissatisfaction. Her sexual encounters are as toxic as heroin shots, with a nauseating aftertaste of stale booze and cold tobacco. As the young woman draws ever closer to the edge, she founders a little further every day, caught up in the “desire to fall” described by the Czech author Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Leïla Slimani’s strength is that she does not seek to explain. Without venturing into psychology, she creates a feeling of unease and describes Adèle’s double life, step by step and sometimes very crudely. Reversing the roles traditionally assigned to men and women, she turns her main character into a predator who is married to a man indifferent to sexuality.
Closely attuned to contemporary concerns, Adèle explores the rifts between a married couple from different social backgrounds, stifled by convention, hypocrisy, and lies. These same themes are present in her 2017 essay Sex and Lies. Based on personal accounts by Moroccan women, the book examines prevailing taboos such as how the female body is controlled, how homosexuality is penalized, and the role played by religious fundamentalism.
Born in 1981 in the Moroccan capital Rabat to a doctor mother and an economist and banker father, Leïla Slimani attended the Lycée Français then went on to study in Paris. A graduate of Sciences Po and a former journalist for the magazine Jeune Afrique, she is now a full-time writer. She supported Emmanuel Macron during his 2017 presidential campaign, and was appointed as his representative responsible for promoting French language and culture. That did not prevent her from criticizing Macron for failing to defend immigrants’ rights with sufficient “vigor.” Slimani’s is a brave and singular voice, and she doesn’t hesitate to use her reputation to help the weakest in society.