Dawn French’s first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, was a real treat when it was published in 2010, and fans of work have been waiting impatiently for her second literary offering ever since. It is promised that her much-anticipated follow up is ‘as darkly comic and entertaining as it is inventive’.
In Oh Dear Silvia, the named protagonist of the novel, Silvia Shute, is mute. That is, she is unable to speak as, ‘despite all the supposed life in her, is in a coma’. She resides in Coma Suite Number 5 at an unnamed hospital in an unnamed town. Her story is told through the perspectives of her loved ones, who range from family members to friends and an hilarious employee, Tia, who is convinced that her employer’s name is ‘Mrs Shit’. Each of these characters has been entrusted with the responsibility of uncovering ‘the mysteries of her broken life’.
The blurb and bare bones of the story alone are intriguing, and pose a wealth of unanswered questions. Each character is followed by the first person narrator, and their thoughts, feelings and often complex relationships with Silvia are presented in a series of separate chapters. The first we encounter is Ed, Silvia’s ex-husband, who finds himself ‘suddenly, shockingly alone’ with his wife. The second chapter focuses upon Silvia’s sister, Jo – ‘the one who’s a bit odd and a bit irritating’ – and others follow her best friend who is a rather psychotic Irish GP named Cat, her daughter Cassie and her key nurse, Winnie. The characters are all varied and have distinctive elements about them. Tia, for example, who helps Silvia around the house, has been taught to swear by her two teenage sons, and comes out with such laughable phrases as ‘I love Cheryl Cole, she a proper nice bollockhead’.
The narrative voice has been incredibly well considered and complements the story perfectly. The monologues which present themselves in one-sided dialogue with Silvia are written well and are filled with believable truths. Small stories find themselves contained within the larger frame, a technique which works marvellously to create a layered plot. The majority of chapters are relatively succinct at first, but they grow in length as the story progresses, allowing us to learn more and more about the characters. Oh Dear Silvia certainly gains strength, depth and speed as it goes along. Nobody seems to quite know how Silvia ended up in her comatose state, and they piece together their knowledge until it reaches a startling crescendo.
The novel is rather touching at times, particularly with regard to the way in which people around her interact with Silvia, despite her unresponsive state. Questions are voiced by characters who would never dare broach certain subjects if Silvia could hear them – Jo wondering why her sister is so unkind and Ed asking about her sending her teenage children away from home after their divorce, for example. As French says, ‘Silvia likes honesty and would certainly be saying it how it is, if the roles were reversed’.
Oh Dear Silvia is, of course, comical, despite the seriousness of its plot. It is also very dark in places, and the twists and turns in the plot come as shocks. The more amusing scenes have been well balanced with those which are more poignant. The novel is full of surprises, and is sure to appeal to fans of French, as well as to those who merely enjoy contemporary fiction.