Thursday, 26 June 2014

"Oh Dear Silvia" by Dawn French - April 2014

This is the story of Silvia Shute who is in a coma after falling off a balcony. We get to know Silvia only through her visitors at the hospital. Through their eyes and voices the story is in turns a comedy, a tragedy, a love story and a mystery.

The group thought it was generally a well rounded story. It was laugh out loud funny in places (as one would expect from Dawn French) but was not a comic novel. Several of the characters telling the story have strong accents (Jamaican, Irish, Thai) and there was some concern about creating comic stereotypes but mostly we thought it was handled well.

The humour allowed some profound insights to be made by people without them being pretentious. Other times the humour was there just for the fun of it. There were some hilarious slap-stick scenes with Silvia’s sister Jo: one involving a stripper, another a dog and a running joke about her hippy alternative remedies. Yet through the humour we come to see how sad Jo is, not only because of her sister’s coma but also the guilt she has been carrying since childhood and their mother’s death.

The plot device of having the main character unconscious with no voice worked well. It gave the story a filmic or theatrical quality – you could easily imagine this being made for television, with each character taking a turn to move the story on.

There was some discussion on how convincing Silvia’s relationship with Cat was. Not everyone was persuaded that Silvia would betray her family for Cat, however manipulative or crazy Cat was. Silvia emerges as a strong-willed, even hard character so why would she allow herself to be distanced from her family?

On the other hand, the emerging love story between Winnie and Ed seemed far more real; we could see why they would be attracted to each other and how the relationship would work.

Silvia’s coldness and Cat’s madness are contrasted well with the kindness of Winnie, Ed, Tia and Cassie. Although Tia is taking financial advantage of her employer, she still takes time to visit her in hospital, talks to her, makes her comfortable. Cassie evolves into a really strong woman, able to get beyond her anger at her mother and forgive her. Her maturity is a wonderful counterpoint to the raw hurt and anger her brother is still suffering and the group felt that his becoming a soldier and going to war was believable.

The enigma surrounding Silvia’s fall – was it an accident, was it deliberate – is explained at the end but does not ring entirely true. We concluded that a possible reading was that Silvia provoked the situation.

Not a great book but some great moments and some good characters.