Oh Dear Sylvia, By Dawn French

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

Susan Jeffreys
Thursday 18 October 2012 19:52
Unconvincing: Dawn French
Unconvincing: Dawn French

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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments