I waited for Dawn French’s second novel, Oh Dear Silvia, with great anticipation. Her memoir, Dear Fatty was lovely and elegant, and her debut novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous showed great promise. And as a writer, French as developed into an excellent story-teller, with a surprisingly melancholy voice. So it comes as a surprise that despite its strong writing, French’s second novel fails because of a regressive homophobia that undoes much of the work’s estimable virtues.
The title character is a woman that’s in a coma after falling from a balcony. Even though we never get to see life through her eyes, we do get to see just how many different facets this woman has, because of the various points of view of her visitors – Ed, her ex-husband; Jo, her envious older sister; Winnie, her nurse; Tia, her maid; Cat, her best friend; and Cassie, her estranged daughter. Each character comes to visit Silvia separately, and each has his or her own private relationship with a seemingly distinct Silvia. French shows just how fractured people’s personalities can be.
Because she’s in a coma, the conversations are one-sided, and we get a glimpse of the lives of the characters outside of the limited world of Silvia’s hospital bedroom. This is where French’s talents shine best – she creates a distinctive character for each person; admittedly when writing for Winnie and Tia, she cheats by using dialect – and with Winnie in particular, it’s a little difficult to read through French’s take on a Jamaican patois. Tia on the other hand, frames her story with a gossipy obsession with tabloids, and an immigrant’s tenuous grasp with cussing.
The novel’s structure is interesting because it allows for a mystery to slowly unfold: why did Silvia fall from her balcony? The characters all seem to accept that it was an accident, but as the plot moves forward one of the characters’ past begins to shed light on Silvia’s accident. It’s not a P.D. James mystery that will leave readers’ jaws dropped, but still the details that start to emerge from Silvia’s background give some intriguing substance to the novel.
And while French is a fantastic author, she indulges in some shocking regressive homophobia. Cat, Silvia’s best friend, is a depressingly stale take on the repressed, angry lesbian. With strains of The Children’s Hour, Single White Female, and every female prison movie, Cat at turns is obsessed, love-hungry, depressed and potentially-violent (in a fit of anger she slaps a comatose Silvia over a past offense). French throws in some context – Cat’s a refugee from an abusive marriage, which only seems to confirm the stereotype that lesbians are made from disastrous relationships with men. And it’s not that I believe lesbians have to be role models, but the choices French make when writing Cat are depressingly lazy and cheap; this kind of monstrous, pathetic lesbian is a well-worn trope that French does nothing with – instead, she’s simply affirming that trope, and it’s an alarming inclusion to the book. Cat is the black gang member, the Latino illegal immigrant, the Asian mobster, the Italian mafia don, the German skinhead, and every other reductive villain.
It’s a shame, really that French torpedoes her book with her old-fashioned prejudiced writing; from all I know of her work, I don’t believe French is a homophobe, which makes this book all the more head-scratching. Hopefully, when she pens her third novel, she’ll try to create a more well-rounded antagonist for her story.