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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Review: Oh Dear Silvia, Dawn French

Silvia Shute may be one of the most interesting characters one can ever read about without her even uttering a word. We meet her in a coma, after a fall from a balcony, and one by one people close to her gather around her bedside - for their own purposes or for hers, it's never really decided upon.

This is more of a character study than a story as such, because there isn't really much story to be gained from a narrative that simply consists of characters whom do not interact with each other until the end of a book, each of whom are talking at Silvia. We learn about Silvia through several different lenses: Ed, the ex-husband; Jess and Jamie the estranged children; Winnie, the ever-optimistic nurse; Tia, the housekeeper; Jo, the eccentric and jealous sister; and Cat, the friend/lover. With Silvia being in a coma, she never gets to defend herself from the charges laid at her door, with the result that that we get several patches of a quilt that is simply unable to be sewn together.

There are several threads that French starts but doesn't quite see through to completion and by the time I finished the novel I had lots of questions - not in the philosophical sense, because it's always good to finish a novel and have questions, but questions that simply were not answered because they were almost forgotten about. Overall, it feels more like an almost-finished draft, but because French was already famous before, the amount of further editing and polishing that would be required from a non-famous author was simply skipped.

The variety of characterisation, on which such a novel necessarily relies, was good in its potential, though it does revert to stereotypes. Winnie's speech, in particular, was hard to navigate as her Jamaican accent was written phonetically and almost got stronger as the novel progressed with the result that I found myself saying the words aloud to make sense of them. Not that it's a bad thing to write in the accent of your character, but it wasn't always helpful. Tia, too, was an unfortunate stereotype - described in another review as simply, "the Asian maid who steals from her employer".

Silvia is given only one redeeming feature in the book - I'm assuming the purported 'secret' which the blurb hints at - but it is one of those threads that is started but not finished, so we don't get to see Silvia in the light in which she could have been presented. All we see of her is the cold wife, the distant and unforgiving mother, the cruel lover. The only chance she gets is from Winnie, the nurse, and the 'what ifs' providing she wakes up from the coma.

In summary, it's an interesting book that never quite stretches to an actual story, despite its interesting characters and flashbacks.  

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