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Caretaker turned life taker
By Lucy Scholes February 02, 2018
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At the crack of dawn out in the banlieues, a young immigrant woman drops her baby off at an industrial-sized day-care centre — row after row of cribs in a cavernous room. She settles her child with a lullaby, then makes the long journey by public transport to the wealthy 16th arrondissement and into the elegant, expensive apartment of her employer, whose baby she looks after, singing the very same lullaby she used to soothe her own baby. On first glance a slightly sentimental story about motherhood, really it’s a caustic tale of socioeconomic disparity, and it’s this very same layering that Lullaby does so brilliantly.

It’s been marketed as this year’s Gone Girl, a psychological thriller that will have readers on the edge of their seats. And yes, it’s a chilling, horror-filled read, for sure. Double infanticide in the opening paragraph — “The baby is dead,” reads the first line — no details of which are spared: the baby’s older sister had “fought like a wild animal.” Murdered, apparently without warning, by their own nanny, in their own home; it’s the stuff of every parent’s nightmares. But Leïla Slimani cleverly puts this violence out there on the first page — we know how the story ends even before it’s started. Now she’s free to explore the broader picture.

The set-up is simple, a bourgeois husband and wife with two young children, find a nanny to look after them so the wife can return to work. She has no problem leaving them — “They’re eating me alive,” she thinks on dull winter days full of toddler tantrums and monotonous domestic chores. But she and her husband take the search seriously, having a very particular set of criteria from the start: “No illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers.” They pick Louise since it’s love at first sight between her and the children: “Her face is like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.” All is not what it seems though. First Louise proves herself indispensible, so by the time her edges start to fray, it’s already too late. Gracefully translated from the original French by Sam Taylor, I’d put money on Lullaby being the smartest thriller you’ll read all year, not to mention an urgent commentary on class, race, gender, and the politics of mothering.

The Independent

THE SQUARE AND THE TOWER: NETWORKS AND POWER, FROM THE FREEMASONS TO FACEBOOK
by Niall Ferguson

The Square and the Tower, British historian Niall Ferguson’s latest doorstopper, takes its title from Siena, in which a tower representing secular power overshadows the adjoining marketplace. Ferguson uses that juxtaposition as a metaphor for a sweeping world history identifying a longstanding tension between hierarchies and social networks. In Ferguson’s hands, that disconnect covers everything and therefore explains nothing; his notion of hierarchy is so narrow and his definition of networks is so generic that the distinction between them becomes meaningless — particularly as Ferguson is forced to admit that “a hierarchy is just a special kind of network.”

What we get instead is a watered down survey of how “networks” spurred by the printing press enabled Luther’s reformation as well as ensuing secular revolution — before reactive “hierarchies” re-established precedence in the 19th century, thereafter themselves coming unglued following World War II.

BLACK NO MORE
by George S. Schuyler

George S. Schuyler’s satire Black No More holds a cynical mirror up to its time, but has plenty to say to our world, too. Black No More is one of four new Harlem Renaissance-era novels reissued with new introductions from contemporary writers. Novelist Angela Flournoy introduces Langston Hughes’ coming-of-age tale Not Without Laughter; historian Allyson Hobbs sets the table for Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry; scholar Emily Bernard commends Nella Larsen’s classic Passing. “Black No More argues compellingly, provocatively, that the idea of blackness is necessary in order for whiteness to survive,” novelist Danzy Senna writes in her introduction to Schuyler’s 1931 novel. Rereading his book in the age of Michael Jackson, Kendall Jenner, Tiger Woods and Rachel Dolezal, Senna praises: “Schuyler’s wild, misanthropic, take-no-prisoners satire of American life seems more relevant than ever.”

OLIVER LOVING
by Stefan Merrill Block

The title character of Oliver Loving is a shy, sweet teenage boy whose life is ended — almost — by a round from a school shooter’s gun. “A boy and also a legend: you were seventeen years old when a .22 caliber bullet split you in two,” Block writes. “In one world, the one over your hospital bed, you became the Martyr of Bliss, Texas.” Oliver survives his attempted murder, but only technically. He’s locked in a persistent vegetative state, unable to communicate; the medical team that attends to him isn’t sure if he can hear or think at all. Oliver Loving follows the boy’s family as they try to move on with their lives while Oliver lies unconscious in a rehabilitation facility. Block is an immensely talented writer, and Oliver Loving is a miracle of a book, a deeply generous and compassionate novel about a “lost boy, the most inexplicable victim of an inexplicable catastrophe in a vanished town, a nearly forgotten tragedy’s only living memorial.” It’s a book that asks us to think, to care, to question what it means to be alive, or dead, or something in between.
 

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