Friday, February 8, 2013

Oh Dear Sylvia, Dawn French (2102)

I would like to start this review with the disclaimer that I love Dawn French. I think she’s fabulous and very funny and the only time I’ve ever been reprimanded on an airplane was when I was watching The Vicar of Dibley and laughing too loud. (The Coles ads, well…I guess everyone’s got to pay the bills.) I was immensely looking forward to reading this book and certain that many chuckles would ensue.

The thing is, though, they didn’t. The eponymous Silvia is lying in hospital in a coma after having fallen off her balcony, landing three floors below. The story is told from the first person point of view of six characters: nurse Winnie, ex-husband Ed, sister Jo, housekeeper Tia, friend Cat and daughter Cassie. As the story unfolds, we learn that each of these people has a different view of who Silvia Shute is and what she means to them differs vastly. Silvia has made some decisions in her life that her family doesn’t understand and, while she is lying in hospital, they take the occasion to address their grievances with her to her unmoving body.

The first problem I had with the novel is that two of the six main characters have their speech written in dialect – Winnie in a Jamaican lingo - “Right, sidung ‘pon dat chair, sista. Yu better start talking. Gimme some reasons for dis craziness” (p193). No, just no. Tia, the Asian housekeeper, oh so amusingly refers to Silvia as “Mrs Shit”: “Tia has been taught to swear by her two sons who were born and grew up in England, and who amuse themselves by cajoling her into using utterly inappropriate language. She’s not stupid, she knows they are having a laugh at her expense, but she can’t be bothered to deduce exactly why, and frankly, she doesn’t care” (p31). Again, just no. It’s cringeworthy.

The second problem I had with the novel is that it just doesn’t make any sense. I understand that the whole point of the novel with its multiple storytellers is that we understand how multifaceted people are and that different people mean different things to different people, but there is no cohesiveness within the character of Silvia. Even timelines were confused and illogical and changed inexplicably from chapter to chapter.


Ed tells us that Silvia systematically destroyed his self-esteem, which lead to the end of their marriage. Cassie has a four-year-old daughter and was kicked out of the family home one week after telling her mother Silvia that she was pregnant, so the end of the marriage was at least four and a half years ago. But then we find out that the end of the marriage was precipitated because Silvia helped Cat dispose of her dead husband’s body, which happened three years ago, so Cassie can’t have been kicked out over four years ago. Then there’s all this stuff about Cassie living with Ed and Ed’s mum but then halfway through the novel she all of a sudden has a boyfriend Ben who she’s had since he got her pregnant and has been really great and supportive but if that is true then all of the stuff Ed said isn’t. And how can Ed afford to buy a field and plant it with really really boringly described trees but spends four and a half/three/however long sleeping on a couch in his mother’s one-bedroom apartment? It doesn’t make any sense. It would absolutely not have been hard for an editor or a proof-reader to draw up a timeline to ensure basic consistency across the storylines rather than really gaping and unbelievable plot holes.

Also, if a coked-up doctor who you suspect is abusive enough a person that you need to isolate your whole family, including your unborn grandchild, from her turns up at your house high as a kite with a dead husband in her trunk, you call the police. Silvia’s motivation to begin a relationship with Cat and cut herself off from her whole family feels really unrealistic and I didn’t buy it at all. None of the aspects of Silvia gel and, for this novel to be successful, this needed to happen.

Finally, the worst thing for me is the stereotypes. The Asian housekeeper steals from her employer. Of course the professionally successful lesbian is a drug-addicted abusive insane person (those bitches be crazy!). The sister is a hippy who wants to burn sage and place crystals everywhere and is totally clueless about normal human social interaction. Dawn French, I’ve watched your work – you’re better than this. Penguin (Australia), whose “Australian” book is peppered with –ize endings, you’re better than this too. All in all, a very disappointing effort from a wonderfully talented woman and a publishing house that should have produced a better book. 

Two stars.