On being a doll in a monster’s garden

by Carmen Eller

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

Adèle looks around. A man in a cheap suit observes her in the metro car: "His shoes are uncleaned, his hands hairy. He is ugly. He could be the one." Adèle is constantly on the lookout. She takes every opportunity to have quick sex with strangers. She often gets drunk, gets grabbed and picked up. Adèle plays out the rest of her life like she’s in a stage play.

As a journalist writing for a Paris newspaper, she infuses her articles with invented statements from anonymous sources. And as the mother of a young son, she misses an appointment with a paediatrician because she was kissing someone for too long. Her unsuspecting husband, the gastroenterologist Richard, longs to move to the country with her. Adèle has other dreams, fantasizing about rough sex and “being a doll in a monster's garden."

In her latest book "Adèle: A Novel,” the Moroccan-French writer Leïla Slimani invents a heroine whose life is built on lies. The book, translated by Sam Taylor, is not the kind of story one might expect from a self-determined, sexually emancipated woman who takes who she wants: Slimani tells the story of an obsession.

When the original novel was published in 2014, some French journalists were surprised "that a Moroccan woman could write such a book"; "such a book", which means "a ruthless book about a woman who is addicted to sex". With this observation, Slimani begins her 2017 book "Paroles d'honneur” a series of conversations with women from the Islamic World. In a society in which there is no freedom to live out one's feelings, "sex inevitably becomes an obsession", Slimani explains, giving the key piece of information to understand her book: addiction. Adèle is a prisoner, not a liberated person.

We follow Adèle: "a frustrated woman" who leads a double life and is "eaten away by her own insincerity" who rebels against norms but "has no real pleasure". Adèle was "a somewhat exaggerated metaphor for the sexuality of young Moroccan women".

Anyone who has read her Prix Goncourt-winning novel "Lullaby" (Chanson douce), knows that there is nothing comfortable about the literary world conjured up by Slimani, who was born in Rabat in 1981 and now lives in Paris. In a sober, almost cold tone, the author describes human abysses. "Lullaby" tells the story of a Parisian couple and their only seemingly perfect nanny, who subsequently stabs her protégés.
Here child murder, there sex addiction. Slimani introduces the horror right at the start of her books. The novels then let the tragedy unfold. There is a lot of malice contained in short remarks. At an evening invitation, Adèle hears guests laugh at Richard's jokes. "Adèle doesn't think he's funny." And when her husband later has a motorcycle accident, she not only tries to seduce his doctor, but even concludes that it would have been better if Richard had died.

All this is written in a powerful way. The chapters are short, the style snappy. At the same time, the author unnecessarily often emphasizes the obsessive nature of Adèle's behavior. Much is spelled out instead of implied. It only gets exciting on a literary level when Adèle's husband learns about her double life. Here Slimani surprises with a skillful change of perspective. Richard, who until now was little more than an extra, gets his own voice. What's more, he develops his own obsession. Now he, the doctor, wants to heal his wife. Towards the end, the novel takes a ghostly turn. The reader remains - and this leaves a lasting impression - in a fog of unease.

Translated by Jess Smee

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