Oh Dear Sylvia, By Dawn French - Reviews - Books - The Independent

Michael Joseph, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Oh Dear Sylvia, By Dawn French

This novel about a woman in a coma has promise but misses the mark

Why does she do it? Dawn French has pretty much got it all sewn up. The divorce was publicly amicable. Her many careers, including those over-sincere Tesco adverts, bring her a shower of gold. Her love life seems, judging by the dedication in this novel ("For Biggs, My anchor and my true love"), to be hunky-dory - unless Biggs is a dog. And you'd give your bum to live in her house in Cornwall. It's never enough though, is it? So she has taken up the novel-writing.

It can be a bit of a fag, hacking away at the prose face all day – working out plots, shifting the characters around, honing the dialogue, layering the sub-plots. So Dawn has come up with a labour-saving device. She has the eponymous Sylvia, in a coma, on a life-support unit. Sylvia is out for the count, for the whole of the novel, and has no interior life.

She's a blank screen for the others to project on to. A revolving cast of characters comes in and delivers a series of monologues to her, some in accents: "Mi could see where he bin bawlin'. Lines o' tears. Valleys dung 'im cheeks"; "Let me out, you feckin' bastards! Or I'll smash this fish tank and the feckin' fish will die"; "That a lotta money. But the talkin' gonna maybe fix husband's head where he sad." And so on. Few of the characters overlap, so the difficult business of creating dialogue and having characters react to each other is skirted round.

An unconvincing murder, an equally unconvincing money plot, a lesbian love affair and various family traumas are dealt with briskly, and mainly offstage. There are a number of creaky comic turns, including a male stripper doing his routine by the comatose Sylvia's bedside and a series of bizarre alternative healing rituals from Sylvia's older sister. A running gag, about Sylvia's cleaner selling off Sylvia's belongings, is flogged to death.

The frustrating thing is that, with a bit of sweat and tears, this could be a better book. There are fine moments. There' s a truly lovely account of a wood that Sylvia's supposedly penniless husband has bought, a thoughtful account of the slow sad death of Syvlia's parents' marriage, and the fierce anger of a rejected child. French handles all these well, but so much of the novel seems rushed and slipshod. Why that should be is a bit of a mystery. She doesn't need the money, so why not take the time to get the details right? Every little, as she so often reminds us on the Tesco adverts, helps.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week