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Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French

silviaShakespeare’s question from The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an apposite one to ask of Dawn French’s new novel, for the title character never says a word, being in a coma after a fall from a third floor balcony.

Instead, Silvia’s story is told from many different points of view including her mad hippy sister Jo, her ex husband Ed and best friend Cat amongst others, who all come to visit her. Between visitors, Silvia is looked after by her kind and caring West Indian nurse, Winnie.

With the voices changing each chapter, it does take time to start to build up a picture of Silvia, and it is deliberately confusing at first. As you get to know all the characters a little, certain aspects of Silvia’s life start to become clearer. The clever thing that French does though, as she introduces new information, is to constantly change and update what we think about Silvia; she goes from saint to sinner several times over, and that gives a definite element of drama with a shocking conclusion.

Silvia’s visitors may all be a little stereotypical, particularly Jo, but I’d defy anyone not to like Winnie the nurse who has her own troubles, but puts them aside to provide professional and empathetic care to her patients. We all hear terrible stories about patients, especially elderly ones, being poorly looked after in hospital, and Winnie’s genuine and caring attitude is almost unexpected. I remember one nurse at the Royal Marsden who looked after my late Mum, who took the time to chat, applied hand-cream for her, and generally looked after her wonderfully during her last days – proof that they do exist.

Don’t mistake this for a comedy novel, it is most definitely a drama. Naturally, there are some amusing moments to lighten the tension that develops, but if you were expecting something light from French, you won’t get it here, as Silvia’s untold story is quite dark.

Certain characters worked better than others.  Jo was rather irritating (think Auntie Angela from TV’s Outnumbered), and I wasn’t sure about Ed.  Silvia’s estranged daughter Cassie was interesting, and Tia the cleaner provided most of the light relief.  Winnie was the real star – and if you read her words aloud in your head, you’ll get the West Indian accent portrayed on the page perfectly.

Of course French has always written, not being one of those comedians who don’t write their own material, so it’s not unexpected that she has taken to longer forms so well.  I haven’t read French’s first novel, A tiny bit marvellous, but I really enjoyed this one, liking the original structure in particular, and I look forward to whatever comes next. (8/10)

See also Dovegreyreader’s review.

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I received an ARC to review from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French, pub Michael Joseph in Oct 2012, Hardback 352 pages.

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