Friday February 15, 2013
Sitting with Silvia
Review by SHARIL DEWA
A brave and ambitious second novel from a comedienne turned writer shows she is more than just a one-idea novelist.
Oh Dear Silvia
Author: Dawn French
Publisher: Michael Joseph/Penguin, 342 pages
IN 2009, publishers Penguin announced that it had signed a two-book deal with British comedienne Dawn French, famed for her lead role in Vicar Of Dibley and her 30-year comedy partnership with Jennifer Saunders.
The first public reaction was that French’s television career must have come to a halt for her to start writing novels. The second public reaction was whatever French had to write would not be worth much – she was, after all, a comedienne and not a novelist.
French’s debut novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous (reviewed here in 2011), was surprisingly good. It was well paced and the plot – about a family breaking down, told from the perspective of the mother, daughter and son – was believable. Anyone expecting French to come up with a second novel in a similar vein, though, will be disappointed. And relieved, perhaps. Oh Dear Silvia is nothing like French’s debut, and this is a good thing.
The central figure in this novel is the eponymous Silvia of the title. Though she may be the central figure, Silvia Shute does not speak because she is the patient in Coma Suite Number 5.
While she herself does not speak, Silvia is presented in a myriad of personas through her relationships with other characters. She is the younger sister of the eccentric Jo; she was the former wife of the dependable Ed before divorcing him with little explanation; she is the mother of Jamie and Cassie, both of whom she showed little love to after her divorce from their father; she is the employer of the Indonesian house cleaner Tia; she is the best friend of Cat, a general practitioner; and she is the patient of the God-fearing, church-going nurse, Winnie.
Through these characters’ monologues in Silvia’s inert and unresponsive presence – “like a marble sarcophagus”, as noted by Cat – we learn more about the characters themselves as well as how Silvia came to be in a coma (she had fallen from the third floor balcony). The characters alternate between love and hate, awe and jealousy (with Ed in particular), sibling rivalry (Jo) and child-like despair (Cassie), and plain humour (mainly Tia, who updates her employer on the going-ons of the pop world by reading gossip magazines out loud).
Unlike in A Tiny Bit Marvellous where French paints her central characters as everyday people who are confused, make mistakes and prove themselves to be human and very relatable, in Oh Dear Silvia, the author does not make it easy for her audience as for most of the novel, her protagonist, Silvia, is presented as a selfish, calculating and cold woman.
But then, just as this reviewer came to the conclusion that Silvia is not at all a lovely person, three quarters into the book a different side of Silvia is presented altogether, giving play to the old adage that one can never truly know another person inside out.
Like her debut, the language French uses in Oh Dear Silvia is simple, making the novel readable.
The plot is very straightforward: readers go through the novel trying to figure out just who is Silvia Shute. The subplots – the various characters’ backstories – work to an extent. As mentioned earlier, through Ed, Jo, Cassie and Cat’s backstories, readers get a better understanding of the mystery of Silvia as well as their personal issues and how they tie in with Silvia.
The downfall is the monologues uttered by these characters tend to be repetitive, which gives the impression that both the characters and their creator were stumped at points about how to move forward with their tale.
Another source of annoyance that breaks the linguistic flow of the novel is French’s insistence on giving two of her characters accents. Both Tia and Winnie, being Indonesian and Jamaican respectively, are given dialogue that is full of broken English and backward grammar. While this lends an air of realism, it has to be said that French is not skilled enough as a writer to be writing dialogue in broken English and barely there grammar.
While the format in which French presents her tale of a woman named Silvia is unique, one can’t help but think that the novel is influenced by Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot, in which the titular character is frequently mentioned but never appears. Like Godot, Silvia remains mute throughout.
The negatives aside, Oh Dear Silvia is a brave and ambitious novel, with French showing she is more than just a one-idea novelist. The bulk of the novel (ie, the non-Winnie and Tia chapters) has the tendency to pull the reader in, forcing them to discover who Silvia is.
This being said, Oh Dear Silvia is admittedly not for everyone. Fans of French would no doubt enjoy the novel. However, for the general public, the target audience seems to be more female than male.