Women lead in prestigious French literary awards

Leila Slimani wins the Prix Goncourt and Prix Renaudot awarded to Yasmina Reza

Women of foreign origin won two of France’s highest literary awards on Thursday, with novels about murder.

The Moroccan-born author Leila Slimani won the most prestigious, the Prix Goncourt, for her second novel, Chanson Douce ("Sweet Song").

“The baby’s dead,” is the first line. In cold, detached, precise prose, Slimani explores the cracks in the mind of Louise, the nanny who murders her charges.

The book had already sold 76,000 copies before winning the Goncourt, and will be adapted for cinema.


Paul and Myriam, a middle-class working couple, thought they had found the perfect nanny for their small children, Adam and Mila. Louise is a “Vishnu mother goddess, jealous and protective, the she-wolf at whose breast they drink, the unfailing source of their family’s happiness”.

The couple so depend on Louise that they turn a blind eye to her erratic behaviour.

Louise is from a poor, working-class background. Her employers are aspiring “bo-bos” (bourgeois-bohemians) who are happy to hire illegal aliens as painters or cleaners, but would not take the risk with a child-carer.

The tale was inspired by the case of Yoselyn Ortega, a 50-year-old nanny from the Domincan Republic who murdered Leo and Lucia Krim, aged two and six, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2012.

Young laureates

Slimani is married to a French banker and is pregnant with her second child. She is only the 12th woman to win the Goncourt since it was established in 1914. At the age of 35, she is one of the youngest laureates.

"I had nannies growing up in Morocco, " she said on Thursday.  She was "very sensitive to the strange position they had" as both surrogate mothers and strangers. "I was always touched by their difficult position, sometimes by the humiliations they would endure."

Slimani's first novel, In the Garden of the Ogre, won the Prix La Mamounia, considered the Goncourt of Morocco, last year. Her mother likened it to an "X-rated Madame Bovary" about a Parisian doctor's wife who suffers from a secret sex addiction. It is partly based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn's story.

The Prix Renaudot was awarded at the same luncheon at Drouant restaurant to the playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza for her novel Babylone, a sort of existential detective story about a spring party among neighbours that ends in murder.

The fête fatale is organised by the novel's narrator, Elisabeth Jauze, who aged 62, is five years older than Reza. Jauze works as a "patent engineer" at the Institut Pasteur.

Like all Reza's works, Babylone is tragi-comic, suffused with bitter laughter at human folly. "For me, Babylone is the world of the disappeared, of the emotions we might have lived," Reza said.

Reza believes her family origins are at the root of her dark humour and elliptical style. She is the secular daughter of an Iranian Jewish father and a Hungarian Jewish mother. She has previously won the US Tony Award, British Laurence Olivier Award and a French César for the film adaptation of her Broadway hit Carnage.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times