The women in Leila Slimani’s novels are unhappy. The men are dissatisfied too, but they are secondary, more oblivious characters. The women are unhappy because their husbands don’t understand them, because their children are a burden on them, and because their existence strikes them as humiliatingly humdrum. They love those husbands and children, but their joy in their families is always short-lived and compromised. They daydream of free, glamorous, and extraordinary lives. The truth is that they aren’t sure what they want, exactly. They just know they do not—and almost surely cannot—have it.
“The only ambition she ever had was to be looked at,” Slimani writes of Adèle, the protagonist of her first book, a cheerless Parisian wife and mother who secretly and compulsively sleeps with a string of men. Myriam, the frustrated middle-class mother in Slimani’s second novel, Chanson Douce (translated into English as The Perfect Nanny), is driven by “her rage, her vast hunger for recognition,” which makes her resent her husband and hand her children off, with guilt and relief, to her nanny—who eventually murders them. Mathilde, the protagonist of Le Pays des Autres (The Country of Others), Slimani’s latest novel, is a young Frenchwoman starting her married life in Morocco in 1946 who bemoans her “existence without spectators. What’s the point of living, she thought, if it’s not to be seen?”
Slimani is in the opposite predicament. The Perfect Nanny won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, in 2016—she was one of the youngest and among the few female recipients—and went on to become an international best seller. Overnight Slimani became a media phenomenon and a cultural star, both in France and her native Morocco. Unfortunately, in the West a prominent woman of Arab and Muslim descent still tends to be seen as either subjugated or liberated, a hostage or a rebel. The French-educated Slimani, whose first book was all about sex, has inevitably been portrayed as audacious, which she has encouraged by making personal and sexual freedom her signature issue. Her book Sex and Lies is about sexual repression in Morocco, and she led a public campaign against the country’s outdated and arbitrarily enforced morality laws. By doing so she waded into a particularly fraught—some would say thankless—debate, in a manner that her critics call blinkered and her supporters find bracingly forthright.
Le Pays des Autres is also likely to attract attention and debate, since it deals with the legacy of French colonialism in Morocco from a deeply personal point of view: it is based on the story of Slimani’s own family. The first, ambitious volume in a planned trilogy, it tells the story of Mathilde and Amine, a Franco-Moroccan couple who, like the writer’s grandparents, meet while he is serving in the French army during World War II. They spend the rest of their…
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