I erupt into high-pitched, terse laughter when I see chaos unfolding. It’s an uncontrollable reaction, a faltering, and it results from a disbelief that things are falling apart. It’s ugly, nervous laughter, and it puts no one at ease. But I will admit that a tiny part of it is voyeurism: I like seeing people in power become uncomfortable when their world no longer resembles the one they are used to. But, then again, this situation of late, this Reckoning, isn’t really putting anyone at ease.
For its survival, power requires a structure strong enough to withstand the weight of any pressure. And the obliqueness of power is due to a series of adjacent structures holding it in place, reinforcing it. Silence is not an element of that structure: it is simply a way to measure the complexity of power dynamics. What I mean is, silence can be a presence, yet its existence is only established by the absence of voice or its volume. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in her recent commentary on silence, The Mother of All Questions, the disintegration of that structure and the liberation of an oppressive tool, results in ‘breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories’. The degree of power in any given relationship is relative to the abundance of silence. Visibility, objectivity, impartiality: none of these exist in a power structure laced with silence. The novel’s two parts—‘Silence is Broken’ and ‘Breaking the Story’—provide a structure for the consideration of two novels released this year: Lullaby and Peach.
Lullaby (Faber), written by French writer Leila Slimani, has been categorised as a crime-thriller novel. The plot centres around Louise, a nanny hired to look after the children of a middle-class Parisian couple—working mother Myriam, who, like the author, is of Moroccan descent, and her producer husband, Paul. The book’s tagline immediately dispels any build-up of suspense typical of crime novels: it’s not a whodunit, but a whydunit sort of story. We know from the outset that Louise kills the couple’s son Adam, fatally injures his sister Mila before attempting to commit suicide. According to Slimani, the story was inspired by the real-life case of Yoselyn Ortega, a New York nanny who killed two children and then attempted suicide in 2012. The protagonist is also a namesake of British nanny Louise Woodward, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the US in 1997. During her trial, the implication made by Woodward’s defence lawyer was that the working mother of the now-deceased children, a doctor, ‘should have stayed home’ if she wanted to keep her children safe.
It’s a disservice to the story to call this novel a ‘killer nanny thriller’ and leave it at that. It is also a portrait of economic and social deprivation: exquisite Paris serves as the backdrop for the murder. Slimani’s Paris is violent, lonely and distant—‘the district of sex, of eroticism…of immigration’, as she describes it in an interview with the Guardian. Indeed, Lullaby echoes this haunting vision of the city. It carves out space for another interpretation of the otherwise characteristically-illuminated city by exploring the voice and sights of immigrants, of which Louise is one. She, like many immigrants in France, is economically and socially disadvantaged in comparison to her employers. Immigrants have a difficult social relationship with the carefully-crafted social fabric of a city. Slimani uses this tense atmosphere to build Louise, ‘her loneliness and her madness’. As the only white woman among the already-estranged community of immigrant nannies, Louise is the stranger. ‘I felt it very important to say that sometimes the boss is an immigrant, and that sometimes the poor are white,’ Slimani says.
When [Louise] goes to the park, she’s always alone because she doesn’t speak the same language, she doesn’t come from Africa, or from Ukraine, and I think that is why she commits this act, because she belongs to nowhere and no one.
Louise lives alone in the outskirts of Paris while working for the Paul and Myriam. She is a woman, she is vulnerable, and she is poor. She is ‘no one’. It’s noteworthy that Myriam rejects an earlier candidate who shared her ethnicity—‘a Moroccan woman of a certain age, who stresses her twenty years of experience and her love of children’. Myriam’s fear of ‘tacit complicity’, and ‘familiarity’, meant that she dreaded a time when the woman would use Arabic to ask favours ‘in the name of their shared language and religion.’ In a review for The Australian, James Bradley sums it up succinctly: Lullaby is a ‘reminder of how rarely the questions of the dehumanising effects of economic uncertainty’ break through the ‘veneer’ of a society built and organised by class.
It is a strange situation to be put in, as a reader, to feel sympathy for the murderer of two innocent children. Throughout the novel, Louise shelters a naive hope that by nannying for the family, she will secure companionship enough to replace the family that she had never had or failed to create for herself. Louise’s silence derives from a mix of class status and an invalidation of voice. Her motives are never directly uttered, only inferred by her circumstances in a series of flashbacks: she has suffered the loss of a daughter in poverty, after years of raising the girl in a violent relationship with her husband. Louise is capable of having great dreams and although her work as a nanny may be outstanding, she never receives the recognition or validation she desires. She lacks the power to articulate what it is she ultimately wants, and the effects of her voicelessness are devastating.
I recently finished Women and Power by Mary Beard. Beard writes on women’s voices, the echo chamber, the glass ceiling, and the endless stream of metaphors that stand in place for the invisible societal limits that constrain women. The first essay in the book, which was also published by the London Review of Books in 2014, is entitled ‘The Public Voice of Women’. It makes reference to the first instance in classical history in which a man told a woman how to use her voice, by telling her when not to use it. Beard writes that the only occasion where women were typically given a chance to speak out was ‘as victims and as martyrs—usually to preface their own death.’ She elucidates by telling the story of Lucretia, a woman raped by a brutal prince of the ruling monarchy. This tale is reincarnated and reinterpreted in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, in which the tongue of the raped Lavinia is ripped out too, preventing her from speaking out and naming her rapist. A symbol of the violation done not just to the body but also to her story, of her right to tell her side. She was silenced.
Peach (Bloomsbury, 2018) by Emma Glass is a tale about a woman’s relationship to her voice and her space, of what little she is entitled. Peach is a teenage girl who is assaulted—violently raped—on her way home at night. Peach experiences tumultuous stomach pains, a swollen belly: a physical manifestation of her violation. Worse, she is tracked by the monster who assaulted her, assaulting her sense of smell continuously. Her rapist and pursuer, Lincoln, claims to love her and takes a perverse pleasure in destroying Peach’s feelings of ease and safety, suffocating her by encroaching upon the spaces she inhabits. Hailing back to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: ‘I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.’ The notion that Lincoln feels he can ‘possess’ Peach because he adores her is an entitlement that reeks of toxic masculinity.
Peach’s ability to thwart her attacker’s second attempt cheats the narrative out of its due climax, but it fits the fable Peach is trying to convey. While vengeance usually satisfies, Peach’s violent act only marks it as a volition of her character: ‘I am crying. I thought I would feel. I thought I would feel better…lighter. Less weight. Not this death, not this dead weight’. Later, when Peach is forced to consume the bodily remains of the man she killed in front of everyone she knows, her public act of cannibalism is a larger transgression of self. Despite her victorious murder, Peach only becomes more tender and fragile, later describing herself as ‘rotten fruit’. The transformation from girl, ‘whole fruit’, to a hollow fruit, and eventually, to ‘stone’ is harrowing. In the final chapter, Peach deals with the slit that she sewed up in the first. She tugs the thread, and it pierces. Blood and waves become one. The blackness and shadows envelop her. She cries: ‘I can’t grow I won’t hold I can’t hold I won’t grow. I won’t hold any soul’. Despite Peach’s efforts at self-preservation, she succumbs to an emotional ceremony of self-immolation.
In the chapter entitled ‘Jacques’ which flashes back to Louise’s time with her ex-husband, readers are told that he loved telling her to ‘shut up’. Jacques became angry when she ‘chatted’ on, as Louise’s voice ‘grated on his nerves’. The men in Lullaby are the only ones who get angry: Jacques, Paul, a former employer Mr Franck. Every encounter with angry men sees Louise contained, reserved and quivering with excuses for her behaviour—a form of self-containment, the silencing of genuine emotion. In an essay for New York Times, Leslie Jamison wrote of female anger: ‘We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.’ In a scene in which Myriam replaces a lost cardigan with a brand-new one, Louise becomes ‘uncontrollably angry’ and frightens Myriam, her doll-like facade breaking to reveal a woman who has had enough of trying to keep it together.
Women in Lullaby and Peach are examples of particular trends towards psychological vulnerability in literature, where women as victims are a far more plowable plot device. It is empowering to think victims can act against their trauma—inherited, intergenerational, or circumstantial—but it’s also a deceitful and unfair expectation to press upon women. Perhaps this is why Peach refuses to tell anyone about what happened to her, why she takes matters into her own hands. And perhaps this is why Louise took the action that she did: a reaction against the atmosphere of heaviness in a household saturated in silence, a reaction against silence itself, an act borne out of poverty and misery. Both stories, while not strictly domestic horrors—perhaps they are even anti-domestic—both show how the violation of space destroys the sanity and sanctity of the home. In Lullaby, the apartment, where the nanny works and looks after the children, becomes the site of a gruesome murder. In Peach, the house where she has dinner with her family and hugs her baby brother, is also where she watches the sausage-scented demon swinging on the street lights outside, watching her. Safe spaces do not exist. In an interview with the New Yorker, Slimani talked about an ideal domesticity: ‘a space of softness, of protection…a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent.’
Slimani’s previous book also focused on silence: ‘It is very important for women to break the silence and to stop being ashamed, because the silence is always good for those who harass, for those who are violent, for those who dominate.’ In one of my favourite passages from The Mother of All Questions, Solnit addresses this as well: ‘silence is what allowed predators to rampage through the decades unchecked.’ In both Peach and Lullaby, silence is dealt as a blow in different ways: economically, for Louise, as silence equals death; for Peach, silence equals guilt, eating away inwardly at her. Silence, ironically, is a means of survival for both women. This dichotomy of silence is as structural a phenomenon as privilege, the outer layer warping as a plait does, inwardly and outwardly. Pulling out a thread doesn’t dissipate the entire structure. It needs to be disemboweled, shredded.
‘Breaking’ the silence is the main tenet of the #MeToo movement. Yet, in Australia, a culture of silence reigns supreme, our legal system effectively weakening any true attempt at structural change. To have charges laid against someone, a claimant needs to prove that their allegation is true beyond reasonable doubt. As defamation law operates on the assumption that the defamatory allegations made against a person are false, an accusation becomes less about exercising free speech, more a battle of ‘she-he-they-said’. Upon researching the legal landscape for examples of success, I considered why defamation law is the appropriate course of action to begin with: why are we concerned with the reputation and characters of alleged sexual assaulters rather than the nature of the crime in general? What is on trial—the reputation or the individual? #MeToo is a battle in the public domain, so it begins as a trial of peers, an attempt to shift the balance of power. But again, it’s one person’s word against another. This means that, as Cristy Clark wrote for The Conversation, victims are ‘denied the opportunity to shape the narrative of their own experience of assault’. We scrutinise the memory and the actions of the accuser to a harrowing degree. The inadequacy of legal recourses become even more frustrating as the #MeToo experience continues to proliferate through social media, countless victims having stepped up in the name of solidarity.
As Clark emphasises, the movement ‘is a symptom of the fundamental failures of the criminal justice system to protect the rights of victims.’ One in two women (53% or 5 million) report having experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime, according to the 2016 ABS survey, writes Clark. Only about 14% of sexual violence victims report the offence to the police, 20% make it as a case judged in court, and 6.5% resulted in a conviction of the original offence charged. It is not surprising that for many, ‘finding’ their voice is not an option.
It’s too easy to say, ‘it’s complicated’ and simply note incremental change as the chosen route of progress. It puts women at the mercy of a justice system that evolves too slowly. When reading Lullaby and Peach, I found visions that were binocularly: Leila Slimani and Emma Glass each wrote a story about how a disempowered woman can use her voice. Both novels reflect how, in the twenty-first century, we continue to track a trajectory that results in perpetuating trauma rather than relieving women of these destructions of self.
Marta Skrabacz is a writer, critic and producer based in Melbourne. She is the Commentary Editor at The Lifted Brow, and the producer for the Meanjin podcast. She tweets @grrrlmarta.