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 Her book Sex and Lies is about sexual repression in Morocco, and she led a public campaign against the country’s outdated and arbitrarily enforced morality laws.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 lives in Meknes, in the interior of Morocco.
Slimani was born in 1981 and grew up in Rabat, her father a prominent financier and her mother a doctor. As is the practice among the country’s Francophone elite, after graduating from the capital’s premier French high school, she moved to Paris to attend two years of prep classes for the entrance exams to France’s prestigious national universities, and went on to attend Sciences Po.
Yet this privileged background is more complicated than one might assume. When Slimani was twelve, her father was accused of corruption and removed from his position as the head of a major Moroccan bank. His trial dragged on for years. Although she generally avoids the subject, in an interview with Le Monde Slimani said that her father died of “heartbreak.” He was cleared, six years after his death, of all charges. His fall from grace, and the family’s ostracism by the capital’s haute bourgeoisie, may have something to do with Slimani’s caustic view of social relations, her urge to pull the mask off polite conventions and reveal the cruelty and terror beneath them.
After university, Slimani briefly explored acting, then began working as a journalist for the magazine Jeune Afrique. She met her husband, a French banker, with whom she has two children. After several years as a reporter, she decided to try her hand at writing fiction. Her first novel was rejected by all the publishers she sent it to. She then took a writing workshop with the Gallimard editor Jean-Marie Laclavetine, who encouraged her and has edited her novels ever since. Dans le jardin de l’Ogre (In the Ogre’s Garden, translated into English as Adèle) was published by Gallimard in 2014.
Adèle has a doctor husband, a young son, a job as a reporter, and a nice apartment in the 18th arrondissement. She is beautiful, miserable, deceitful, and self-destructive. She is terrified of losing the refuge of her marriage and her bourgeois respectability, but she can’t help pursuing sexual trysts, craving their risk and intensity.
Slimani has said that she writes about what she fears. In Adèle it is the gaping emptiness under the veneer of a perfect life and the danger and sloppiness of sex. Adèle is a queasy story in which everyone is miserable and unlikable. The protagonist seems to get no pleasure from her addiction; the cycle of her encounters, lies, regrets, and backslides is at first gripping and then becomes, perhaps intentionally, a joyless slog. Adèle’s pathologies are nebulous and her psychology purposely opaque. Her husband, who is besotted with her but uninterested in sleeping with her, comes to seem equally, mysteriously unbalanced. The writing about sex is graphic without being erotic; in fact it is often overwrought or confounding. Here is Adèle trying to masturbate while waiting for a lover:
A hot, lively movement, like a dance. A regular caress, completely natural and utterly degrading. It’s not working. She stops then tries again. She swings her head like a horse trying to shake the flies out of its nostrils. Only an animal can be good at such things.
When that lover embraces her,
he moves his mouth toward her and an electric wave runs through her belly. It hits her pussy and explodes it, fleshy and moist, like a peeled fruit. The man’s mouth tastes of wine and cigarillos. Of forest and the Russian countryside.
After a night of debauchery during which she begs a gigolo to knee her repeatedly in the vulva, “her vagina is just a shard of broken glass now, a maze of ridges and fissures. A thin layer of ice with frozen corpses floating beneath it.”
The Perfect Nanny, published two years later, is a more taut and less outré book than Adèle, with characters whose circumstances and motivations are all the more troubling for being recognizable. When I read it, I was both impressed and put off by how perfectly calibrated it was for commercial and critical success. Like Adèle, it is a voyeuristic literary thriller, a bourgeois nightmare about being harmed by a social inferior in the worst way imaginable. Myriam ends up punished for her ambivalence about being a homemaker and for her selfish pleasure in finding another woman to take over the thankless tasks of domesticity.
The opening line of The Perfect Nanny is “The baby is dead.” Slimani has a gift for hooking readers with sensationalistic premises delivered in a chilling, matter-of-fact tone. Her clipped prose strikes me—despite its determination to shock—as cautious, confined to a narrow but effective stylistic band. In The Perfect Nanny Slimani delivers a tart portrait of the smugness of middle-class Parisian liberals. Myriam and her husband, Paul, are delighted at obtaining a comfortable lifestyle thanks to Louise, their efficient nanny. Even as they congratulate themselves on being considerate employers, Slimani highlights their condescension and self-interest; they do not really want to know the person they depend on so intimately, and they are ready to pull rank when Louise displeases them. The book steadily and ominously reveals the dependency and struggle for domination at the heart of family relations—between spouses, between employers and domestic staff, between children and their caretakers.
Slimani enjoys startling her readers, and one of the ways she reliably does so is by voicing women’s deep disillusionment, bordering on rage and despair, with their responsibilities as wives and mothers. In The Perfect Nanny, Myriam admits to herself that her belief that she can balance her personal aspirations with motherhood is an illusion. Her children are “like an anchor that drags you to the bottom, that pulls the face of the drowned man into the mud.”
The Goncourt catapulted Slimani into France’s highest cultural orbits. President Emmanuel Macron asked her to be his minister of culture. She declined but has agreed to act as the president’s representative for Francophonie, the promotion of French language and culture, largely in its former colonies. She writes columns for Le Monde, is a regular guest on TV talk shows, and is frequently on the cover of magazines. She is young, assured, photogenic, intriguingly exotic to a French audience without being challengingly foreign.
In much of the media coverage of Slimani, one finds a note of celebration for how liberated and outspoken this woman of Arab and Muslim descent is; often there is a tone of wonder that someone of her background should feel free to write so openly about sex. A profile of her in the French edition of Vanity Fair notes her “Oriental beauty” and the fact that “a woman born in a country where bodies await to be liberated has dared take on a taboo subject.” As Slimani herself has pointed out, there is no lack of talk about sex, or sex itself, in Morocco. But if there is one issue that she has been most consistently outspoken about, it is her indignation at sexual double standards and sexual repression there.
One night, in a seedy strip club Adèle likes to frequent, an older North African man, scandalized at her presence, hisses the only Arabic word in the book: hchouma. He spits on the ground and walks out. Adèle—whose father, we have learned in passing, is Algerian—also leaves, shaking with rage. Slimani defines the word in Sex and Lies: “Another cornerstone of Moroccan society is the concept of hshouma, which translates as ‘shame’ or ‘embarrassment’ and which is inculcated in every one of us at birth.”
The cover of the English edition promises “True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World.” The book is in fact focused entirely and exclusively on Morocco, and on denouncing what Slimani describes as “the generalised sexual privation, especially among women, whose sexual needs other than for reproduction are quite simply ignored.” It is made up of interviews with anonymous Moroccan women who relate infuriating, heartbreaking stories of the ways in which their desires, happiness, and autonomy have been stunted by a system that denies their validity or very existence.
In Morocco, abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, and sexual relations outside marriage are all outlawed. And yet these are common practices, too—they just can’t be publicly acknowledged. Living in the huge gap between prescribed morality and lived experience, many Moroccans are condemned to fear, misery, and obfuscation. The authorities enforce the laws arbitrarily, and their brunt falls disproportionately on women, the poor, and individuals who are targeted by the police for personal or political reasons.
In the summer of 2019 a young Moroccan journalist named Hajar Raissouni was arrested as she left a gynecologist’s office and accused of having sex outside marriage and of getting an abortion. While in detention she was forced to undergo a gynecological examination. Raissouni worked at an opposition newspaper and is related to a prominent Islamist cleric; she was engaged to be married the following month. Targeting her caused an uproar. Slimani and the filmmaker Sonia Terrab wrote an open letter, signed by hundreds of Moroccan public figures and published on the front page of Le Monde, that declared that they too were “outlaws,” sexual criminals who broke the obsolete, hypocritical Moroccan laws regulating public morality and didn’t “want to be ashamed anymore.”
Slimani was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for women’s freedom for the “outlaw” campaign. But some in Morocco have charged her with hypocrisy. Her open letter, like her book on sex, both published in France, makes no mention of King Mohamed VI, even though he is the supreme political and religious power in the country. (He eventually pardoned Raissouni.) All forms of unaccountable male power in Morocco culminate in the monarchy, the only institution that can enact any significant reforms. Yet like many Francophone Moroccan intellectuals, such as the writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, a friend and mentor, Slimani is more comfortable discussing the lack of personal freedoms and decrying the influence of Islamists, society, and retrograde laws than calling for a more democratic political system in which the judiciary and the media would be independent and the vast powers of the security services, including widespread surveillance, curtailed.
Sex and Lies is best understood as a settling of scores with Morocco’s bourgeoisie, not its authoritarian regime. As long as upper-class Moroccan men don’t engage in politics, they can break the rules without much fear of exposure. They can pay lip service to the prevailing norms and avail themselves of personal freedoms that are not extended in equal measure to women, let alone to the poor, whose ignorance and conservatism they can continue to deplore. Slimani’s critique of all this is valid, but although undoubtedly sincere, she has her own blind spots.
In the months before she was targeted, Raissouni had been writing sympathetically about the Hirak, a peaceful protest movement in the north of Morocco that called for an end to corruption and unequal opportunity. It lasted from the fall of 2016 to the summer of 2017, when it was quashed by a police crackdown and by the arrest and trial of activists, many of whom said they were tortured and were given prison sentences that range up to twenty years. When Slimani was asked in an interview about the protests—the most significant political event in the country since the Arab Spring—she pleaded ignorance, saying she hadn’t had a chance to follow them and she would have to find out more about them before she’d have anything to say. The ultimate taboo in Morocco isn’t sex but politics.
“We still need to invent the woman who belongs to no one,” Slimani writes in Sex and Lies. I doubt that such a woman has been invented anywhere. For Slimani, in Morocco it is the community that both sustains and tyrannizes individuals. She has said that in Le Pays des Autres she wanted to further understand “the mechanics of domination.”
Le Pays des Autres opens with Mathilde’s arrival in 1946 in Morocco. Meeting her at the Rabat airport, her husband, Amine, “kissed her on the cheek, mindful of the other passengers’ looks. He gripped her right arm in a way that was both sensual and threatening. He seemed to want to control her.” All that will define the couple’s relationship is telegraphed in this paragraph: his concern with his society’s rules and his expectation of imposing them on her, the sexual bond that is the basis of their marriage, the lack of tenderness and even outright violence that will shadow it. Very soon the sensitive, impetuous, self-absorbed Mathilde is writing letters home full of lies, for how can she admit that “the man she met during the war was no longer the same”?
The subtitle of the novel (“War, war, war”) is a line from Gone with the Wind that Scarlett O’Hara flippantly delivers at a party. After Slimani’s first two novels that coolly relate the miseries and tragedies of bourgeois Parisian families, Le Pays des Autres is a departure in subject and style: a sweeping, expansive historical drama chronicling the upending of a flawed, unequal world. The book moves briskly from one dramatic mise-en-scène to the next. The beautiful landscape of Morocco is vividly rendered: “A creamy light inundated the center of town, caressed the white façades of buildings, accentuating the bright red of geraniums and hibiscus flowers.” “The sky was a tender blue and the heat so intense that it seemed that at any moment a field might burst into flame.”
But unlike Gone with the Wind, there is no hint of nostalgia. Slimani insists on noting all that is ugly, dirty, smelly (she mentions bad odors frequently), and brutal. In the first few pages, the narrator describes how Amine’s father died, in agony and covered in his own excrement, after being poisoned by a chouafa (a sorceress), how his family sleeps on mattresses infested with “bed bugs and vermin,” how beggar children throw themselves on Mathilde “like a swarm of insects.” On their way to the farm where they will live, she is horrified by their carriage driver’s violent whipping of his mule, and when she protests, he grumbles, “Do you want to feel the whip too?”
The book is set between 1946 and 1956, the years in which the Moroccan nationalist movement demanded the end of the French protectorate that had been in place since 1912. In 1953 the French authorities exiled Sultan Mohamed V, a figurehead who had not been compliant enough, and replaced him with a more amenable relative. The sultan became a national hero, and the country heaved with unrest: protests and strikes led to riots, massacres, and assassinations. French police opened fire on protesters; nationalists placed bombs in a market and a café in Casablanca. European colonists marauded through Moroccan neighborhoods in retaliation.
These historical events form the backdrop of the book. But Amine and Mathilde try, as much as possible, to avoid politics. They are focused on their struggle to establish a flourishing farm on the rocky land that Amine’s father has bequeathed him fifteen miles outside Meknes. Life there, to Mathilde’s dismay, is one of endless labor, setbacks, frustrations, and humiliations.
The ambitious Amine wears himself out studying the latest botanical and agricultural developments. Mathilde spends her days taking care of her household and two children, devising games and jokes, small embellishments and improvements, but also venting her frustration in angry outbursts. Her husband scoffs at her tears and ignores her tirades.
Every morning, Mathilde and her young daughter Aicha leave the house in the dark to drive, in an old car that “coughs like a tuberculosis patient,” to the French school that Aicha attends in town. Often the car won’t start. Aicha, fretting at being late yet again, throws tantrums; Mathilde loses her temper, slaps her daughter, and gets out to push the car down the hill. One morning Mathilde’s exasperation turns to helpless amusement; she makes her daughter laugh by imitating the voice of a pilot, promising the car will take flight soon. It’s a vivid scene of mundane struggle, of the repetitive conflicts of family life, and of a moment’s imaginary escape, but there are not many lighthearted moments like this.
Aicha, brilliant and high-strung, “carried a heavy burden of shame,” the narrator tells us: shame at the outfits her mother sews for her and shame at her mane of frizzy hair, which makes her a target of mockery at school. Aicha isn’t an “indigene,” a native, and she isn’t like the European girls, daughters of colonial bureaucrats and landowners. “She didn’t know what she was so she kept to herself.” When her father picks some of her schoolmates up for her birthday party, they mistake him for the chauffeur.
Shame, and the loneliness that accompanies it, may well be the novel’s primary emotions. The shame flows from Amine and Mathilde’s mixed marriage, from the condescension they face from French colonists, from his sense of having betrayed his people and hers of having landed in a world in which she will never belong, and from the family’s threadbare rural existence, its unrealized middle-class aspirations.
But instead of focusing on the troubles of one family, as she has in her previous novels, Slimani wants to depict a wider social and historical panorama. This leads to some marvelous scenes: the family’s first enchanting visit to the beach, their fearful witnessing of a street protest in Meknes. But she also keeps introducing new characters, many of whom make one or two opportune appearances and then melt away. In this crowded story, Aicha and her parents are the only truly complex figures who reveal themselves over time and sometimes take us by surprise. Others tend to step onto the scene with full, neat introductions by the omniscient narrator.
So we are informed that Amine’s brother Omar, the most prominent nationalist in the book, “hated his brother as much as he hated France,” and that he had hoped that World War II would end with Amine’s death and France’s defeat by the Nazis. Omar is so vicious that his indignation over the daily humiliations of colonialism is overshadowed by his aggressiveness and intransigence. He is one of those men, the narrator tells us, who “are full of big words, men bloated with ideals, who by dint of lofty speeches have exhausted all their humanity.”
No explanation other than pure jealousy is suggested for Omar’s hatred of his brother; none but pure misogyny for his brutal treatment of his sister Selma. Ever since she was a child, Omar has spied on her, threatened her, and beaten her bloody for the slightest transgression. He mocks his sister’s requests to visit friends, spits at her, calls her a whore. “He would lift her off the ground, put his face against that of the trembling young girl, and then send her flying against a wall or throw her down the stairs.”
Selma is a sympathetic, vibrant character, but she is also defined almost entirely by a single characteristic: her desire for personal and sexual freedom. From the moment she is introduced as a girl whose beauty “made her brothers as nervous as animals who feel the storm coming,” one can guess what her story will be. Taking advantage of Omar’s disappearance into the anti-French underground, Selma goes to movie theaters where she lets strange men rub her legs; she cuts her hair short, skips classes, hangs out in cafés with other young people who only care about “rock’n’roll, American movies, beautiful cars.” After a street photographer takes a photo of her and her French boyfriend, it is only a matter of time until Amine sees it in a shop window and all hell breaks loose.
“My sister will never marry a Frenchman!” Amine yells at his wife. In his own marriage, he alternates between being proud of Mathilde and embarrassed by her. He desires her with a brutal intensity, “so much that at times he woke up in the middle of the night wanting to bite her and devour her, to possess her absolutely.” But he also sometimes longs for a wife
like his mother, who would understand him without him having to explain himself, who would have the patience and self-abnegation of his people, who would speak little and work hard…. Mathilde made him a traitor and a heretic.
For their part, the French colonists—when not delivering self-aggrandizing speeches about what Morocco has meant to them—approach Moroccans with a combination of contempt and erotic fascination. A French shopgirl thinks that Amine is the kind of young nationalist she fantasizes sleeping with and speaks to him with “a lewd and mocking smile.” A French woman in a train, provoked by Selma’s beautiful dark eyes—like those of a black panther, she thinks, of a whore, of the kind of women who drove her husband crazy—assaults her. A doctor who visits when Mathilde is gravely ill is disgusted at the thought of this European woman sleeping in the arms of an Arab, bearing his children: “All this was not right, was not in the order of things. Mix-bloods announce the end of the world.”
The doctor is an out-and-out racist; but almost everyone in the book takes a dim, stark view of mixed marriages (or what was once called métissage); different cultures are seen as essential and irreconcilable elements, engaged in a constant struggle. This includes Amine, who grafts a lemon tree branch onto an orange tree in one of his botanical experiments; Aicha names it the “citrange,” a mix of “citron” and “orange.” But the tree produces inedible fruit. By the end of the book Amine muses that the same law applies to humans as to plants: only when one species has triumphed over the other can it bear fruit.
Colonialism in this book is an intensely, suffocatingly personal affair. There are no broader political horizons, no collective awareness through which to put individual suffering in perspective. There is no escape from one’s particular family, identity, history. There are only stark choices and the struggle for survival, the chance of coming out one day on top. As Mathilde writes in a letter home of her children’s accomplishments, “They are my revenge against those who humiliate us.”
In Le Pays des Autres, marriage and motherhood are, as usual, a battle and a trap. The stakes are further heightened by the fact that Mathilde is stuck in an inhospitable culture, so much so that when she returns to Alsace after her father’s death, she is tempted to abandon her family. She wants to escape “a world in which she didn’t belong, a world dominated by unjust and revolting rules, where men are never held to account, where one has no right to cry over a hurtful word.” But her sister offers no sympathy and sends her packing.
When Mathilde returns to Morocco and embraces her children, the narrator tells us: “She loved them all the more for having given up everything for them. Happiness, passion, freedom. She thought, I hate myself for being enslaved this way. I hate myself for preferring you to all else.”
At the end of the book, Amine observes his wife and “thinks that she had become a woman of his country, that she suffered as much as him, worked as hard as he did and that he was incapable of thanking her.” He wishes he knew how to show her more tenderness. Instead, when he learns of Selma’s French boyfriend, he violently attacks her and Mathilde, breaks his wife’s nose, and threatens to kill all the women in the house. This time Mathilde (who knew about Selma’s relationship) doesn’t even seem to think of leaving. The husband and wife are locked in mutual dependency, desire, and incomprehension.
What also binds them is their sense of being stranded together in a no-man’s-land. The fear that Slimani explores this time is that of not belonging. In the final chapters, as Moroccans set fire to the great agricultural properties of French colonists that surround Amine and Mathilde’s farm, they feel that they “both belonged to a camp that did not exist, a camp in which indulgence for the violence, compassion for the killers and the victims, mix in equal and strange measure.” They cannot take either side, only their own. Perennial outsiders, traitors, they are condemned to silence.