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Oh Dear Me!
Oh Dear Silvia - Dawn French
Member Name: cyberem78
Oh Dear Silvia - Dawn French
Date: 24/09/13, updated on 26/09/13 (32 review reads)
Advantages: Many characters have vivid individual voices.
Disadvantages: Very dark story with some comedy moments that feel incongruent.
A family member gifted me Dawn French's second novel 'Oh Dear Silvia' to read whilst I recover from a broken toe. Although this is not usually the type of book I would normally choose to read I did hear a lot about the book when Dawn French was publicising it and I thought that the premise sounded intelligent and interesting. After reading the art critic's glowing responses to the novel which are printed on the book cover I was also quite eager to get started.
I have the paperback version of the book which contains 342 pages of content as well as a reading group guide and an extract of French's first fiction novel 'A Tiny Bit Marvellous'. This novel was first published in 2012 and then in 2013 by Penguin Books. It became a number 1 bestseller and was a critical success gaining review comments like "Hilarious. My top book" (The Times) and "Side splitting, darkly humorous" (Heat). The novel is teased by the author and the publishers as being a drama about a woman called Silvia Shute who is in a coma and who "hides a secret". This "truth about Silvia is slowly revealed" according to the description on the book cover.
When I heard Dawn French talking about how this novel is composed I thought it sounded like a very unique and clever idea. As Silvia lies in her coma characters enter her hospital room and converse with her. Each chapter focuses on whichever character is visiting Silvia and the tone and style of the text changes to reflect the differences in these characters. French has a real talent for stepping into the skins of her characters and I felt that her portrayal of most characters in the novel was excellent. French is particularly good at dialogue and being able to find an authentic voice for her characters. I was particularly in love with one of the characters, Tia, as she was so realistic and relatable. However, there is a jarring incongruity with other characters like Silvia's sister Jo, whose whacky behaviour would only ever be acceptable within the set of a TV sitcom. I also thought that French's portrayal of the villain of the piece was slightly na´ve and juvenile.
As I progressed through the novel I began to realise that there is a touch of repetition, especially mid-novel, as certain characters re-visit Silvia and essentially say and think the same things they said and thought a few chapters ago. Although we learn more about Silvia's life the supposed secret and hook of the story does not as much unfold gradually as suddenly appear towards the end of the novel. I feel like French's ability to craft a suspenseful story is a little undercooked.
Since French is an amazing comedienne and this story is postulated as one that "will make you laugh with delight" (Heat) I imagined it would be a lot more hopeful and light-hearted. It is easier to laugh at and with the characters earlier in the novel but towards the end of the novel I felt almost sick with misery. Don't be misled - this is a stark story about a woman who is in a coma, the story of how she sustained her injuries and the fractured relationships she has with her soul-damaged visitors. Every other character in the novel also have their own skeletons in their closets and several gritty side-plots focus on yet more of life's struggles. I am not sure I could even describe this as black comedy. It seems rather more to swing between optimism and silliness to total despair. French's comedy brain is sometimes glaringly obvious but to try and wring any comedy out of overwrought characters is difficult when faced with the gloomy hospital sick-bed setting.
Towards the middle of the novel I felt that the writing style had become slightly more simplified and the conclusion of the novel reads like a teen fiction novel that tries to expound emotion without alienating the reader by using complex literary techniques. The ultimate revelations about why Silvia has ended up where she is were not surprising to me. I felt the key relationship in the novel which explained Silvia's situation was not fully explored and therefore I still felt like I did not really know Silvia at the end of the story, as though chunks of her history were missing. The conclusion of the novel also feels like the author has rushed to piece things together so there are occurrences which are unexpected and which feel forced in order to create an ending. One positive thing about the end of the novel is that you do feel that you know MOST of the central characters quite well because of the way French has composed their character's dialogue. It's a few core characters that matter at the end rather than Silvia.
I think that this novel has it's good points and it's bad points but that ultimately it's not something I really enjoyed. I was actually very surprised at how dark and sad the story is considering French's background and reputation for 'silly' comedy. I think that this would be a good book for younger people to read, especially school age teenagers. The reading guide at the back of the book also seems aimed at literature students or at people who perhaps don't read regularly. Despite this not being my cup of tea I would definitely pick up French's next novel as I think she has a talent at realising characters and bringing them to life and I would hope a less intense and miserable core storyline would feature next time!
Summary: French's second novel, dark and gritty rather than side-splittingly funny.