Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Oh dear... French's slipshod effort will have readers in coma

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 Silvia, in a coma, on a life-support unit.

Silvia is 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: "Let me out, you feckin' b******s! 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.

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 Silvia's bedside and a series of bizarre alternative healing rituals from Silvia's older sister.

A running gag, about Silvia's cleaner selling off Silvia'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 Silvia's supposedly penniless husband has bought, a thoughtful account of the slow sad death of Silvia'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.

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