I love Dawn French when she is doing what for me she does best, which is make me laugh, but I couldn't possibly, in fact definitely wouldn't enjoy this book.
To be honest I probably wouldn't even pick it up.
It's by a celeb for a start, a comedian at that. For those who don't know Dawn French best known here in the UK for her role as Rev Geraldine Grainger in sit-com The Vicar of Dibley, and also for her supremely funny comedy duo with Jennifer Saunders, and until recently married to Lenny Henry. But celebs, let alone funny ones can't be writers too can they... surely they can't be expected to be taken seriously as novelists.
Well they can but they would need to write a good book in order to overcome all my prejudices and I am about to say it... I think Dawn French might have done just that with Oh Dear Silvia, which blows all my assumptions right out of the water. I struggled and abandoned Dawn French's first novel A Tiny Bit Marvellous which had confirmed all those prejudices and that was that. Reviewers were gentle with her and the 'relentlessly perky prose,' one suggesting that to criticise was like kicking a puppy..
But French has such a tender and tolerant attitude towards the problems of growing up and growing old that this book just about deserves a pat and a biscuit.
A little patronising perhaps but when Oh Dear Silvia arrived I wasn't planning to give it a second glance, let alone a chance, except the premise intrigued me.
I had read an article in which Dawn French described what was happening in her own life as she wrote the novel
"It was the strangest thing – although in another way it was completely organic. Everything happened slowly. My mum was a bit poorly. Then she was very poorly, and I'd be writing a bit of Silvia, and then a bit more of Silvia. The central conceit was already well set – I knew exactly what was going to happen at the end, and all the rest of it – but then it was just strange to be in hospital a lot." Eventually, she and her brother were spending whole days and nights by her mother's bed. And "there was a moment when my mum woke up, and she was very groggy, and I was just sitting there, watching her, and she said, 'Why aren't you writing?' And I said 'Because I'm here, with you?' And she said, 'Well, keep writing.' Because she knew what this book was about – she'd read those first bits." And so for days, French sat there with her mother, writing, looking, thinking, until her mother became too ill, and she couldn't any more, and laid it aside.
It was enough to tip me over the edge and I made a start.
The novel works smoothly in some ways if not in others...but on balance it succeeded for me. The plot is structured around the unconscious Silvia Shute lying in her hospital bed on life support after a fall from a balcony. Slowly Dawn French populates the book with the important people in Silvia's life giving each a chapter as they come to visit and talk to her. Ex-husband Ed, daughter Cassie, sister Jo, friend Cat, cleaning lady Tia, and for once in her life Silvia can't talk back so her life, mediated through the eyes of others, becomes a complicated, messy, enigmatic affair. This a family cast adrift and beset be helplessness in the face of inexplicable circumstances and which, hardly knowing what they were dealing with, they seem to have had little resilience to endure. It will take Silvia's coma and the one-sided talks they can finally have with her before each is able to rediscover and redefine a family role for themselves.
Offering some stability as the boat rocks and rolls over the stormy seas of Silvia's life and loves is the inimitable Winnie, the Jamaican nurse, and to read her dialect out loud (often essential to understand it) is to feel the warmth of her personality. I loved Winnie, my sort of nurse who washes her hands umpteen times because she really doesn't want Silvia to pick up MRSA, and who does old-fashioned things like pressure care and mouth care and talks to her patients and touches them. Actually makes contact with them.
Have you noticed how little that happens in hospital now??
I have sat by the Tinker's bed in the past and watched as the nurse comes to do observations, clips something on his ear, something else on his finger, and does a bit of button pressing on a machine before wheeling it off to the next bed. Not a word, not a touch, not a 'how are you', nothing, and we sit there in silence, and please excuse me for feeling like a dinosaur when I recall what we were taught in PTS, and what four hourly observations used to mean. Our regular chance to assess all aspects of the well-being of the patients we were looking after, the times we would sit by a bed and touch a hand after we'd taken a pulse or done a blood pressure, and ask if everything was OK. Well it wasn't of course, that's why they were in hospital, but it was always a moment to ask and to sort out any worries, and say things like "I'll get you something for that". Winnie is that sort of nurse.
Dawn French, perhaps understandably through her recent experiences, doesn't put a foot wrong with any of the nursing detail, nothing that jarred with the old-fashioned SRN in me ..unlike my other recent reading experience. In fact there was a moment when I realised that Dawn French had spotted something that most nurses would never own up to but would recognise as a truth. That moment when a patient's relatives get awkward and...
'...they withdrew the metaphorical drawbridge of goodwill.'
Oops, hardly realised that myself until I thought about it... try as you might not to, it can happen.
The comedy will out, and in much the same way that I always sensed French and Saunders people-watched in order to create all those memorable characters, Dawn French has created Tia the cleaner. Hilariously funny Tia from Indonesia, with the two sons who are helping her with her English. English which is unfortunately smattered with innocently used unsavoury and inappropriate expletives, and of whose meaning Tia has only a hazy knowledge. Tia's visits to Silvia's bedside are a combination of laugh out loud funny as she recounts the contents of the gossip magazines, balanced with seriousness and sadness when she describes her own family situation.
There are one or two moments when the book descends into farce, truly from the sublime...as in Ed's description of his beech woodland purchase, carpeted with bluebells. This is mindfulness at work and I was up in our (as in someone else's but feels like ours) wood amid the hazy blue of May.
Thence to the ridiculous, as in sister Jo's attempts to rouse Silvia with the presence of a few covert animals, but can any comedian resist a bit of the ridiculous. Perhaps some elements of the plot fizz for a while and then lose their sparkle, when they could have bubbled for longer and with more purpose, but I ended up forgiving it all in the wake of a book that had more pluses than minuses. Nor do I mean to damn Oh Dear Silvia with faint praise, I sat and read it, engaged with it and looked forward to picking it up each time.
I don't want to give away the ending but it is beautifully done. I was moved, and with two more novels to come I am hoping and praying that Dawn French can sustain and build on what she has achieved here. Peter Ustinov said 'Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious' whilst Woody Allen suggested it 'makes sense out of chaos and pokes at problems,' ...I think Dawn French has the eye, the method and the skill to do it all and produce something even more special, so I look forward to seeing what comes next.
Now prove me wrong and tell me about all those other Celebs I have forgotten who can write a good novel.