I like Dawn French when she is playing a sinister nurse much more than when she’s a jolly vicar. As her new novel, Oh Dear Silvia (Michael Joseph, £18.99) is set in a hospital, her darker side is gloriously indulged.
We are at the bedside of the comatose Silvia, who has fallen off a balcony. Or was she pushed?
Siblings and offspring trot to the ward; each chapter offers an internal monologue or confession — a gallimaufry of recriminations, alliances and reconciliations. What complex interactions there are with somebody who doesn’t move or say a word! Nevertheless, ‘somewhere deep inside the brain of this paralysed body there is life.’
New Age Jo is my favourite character. Her attempts to smuggle pets into the hospital — because dogs and hamsters emit ‘healing energy’ — is as funny a set-piece as anything Milligan put into Puckoon. The nurses, seeing what they believe is a rat emerging from the patient’s pillow, run out screaming: ‘The only immediate explanation is supernatural devilment.’
There is also a disinclination amongst the family to have Silvia’s organs donated, as ‘supposing all that Sunday school bollocks was true, it would be terrible to arrive in Heaven and not be able actually to see it.’
Though television comedians publishing novels is a genre that should be very actively discouraged, Dawn French, it must be said, is annoyingly good when she puts pen to paper.