The bold and funny Dawn French – sometime celebrity press magnet, now adored national treasure. Her very name sells books.
In 2008 fans rushed to buy her autobiography Dear Fatty. Brimming with her trademark wit and warmth, it also offered an insight into the true priorities and personality of this successful woman. She seems fascinated by family, and devoted to her own, to whom (alongside her closest friends) her recollections are addressed in the form of letters.
Her writing wasn't perfect, but it was promising. It hinted that this talented queen of British television might also have potential in the book department. And before her memoir had even been published, this had become her ambition. Dawn reported discovering a love for the solitary process of writing literature. And she has been living the life of the authoress ever since.
On the wave of a prime-time television promotional campaign, her first novel A Tiny Bit Marvellous rocketed to the top of the pre-Christmas book charts in 2010. And two years later, just in time for this year's gift-giving season, she's back with her second novel: Oh Dear Sylvia.
Are they a worthwhile read? Do the books live up to the brand? Well, that's not an easy question to answer. Her literary style will divide readers. Like marmite.
A Tiny Bit Marvellous book cover, published by Penguin
Dawn's initial foray into fiction produced a peculiar creature. A Tiny Bit Marvellous recounts a brief episode in the lives of a fairly average family. The Battle's all have their personal dilemmas, conveyed in the first person narrative of diary entries.
It is true that A Tiny Bit Marvellous has very little plot. It centres upon a fairly inconsequential episode in their lives. For some this will be part of it's literary charm – a celebration of the ordinariness of family life, and subtle examination of the complicated relationships it contains. Other's won't feel so generous, and could be equally justified in finding the character's and their internal dialogue caricatured. Dora, the teenage daughter of the book, in particular is annoyingly over-exaggerated, and more reminiscent of a teenager of 14 than 17.
The characters could certainly have been lifted from a comedy sketch, with Dawn herself exuberantly impersonating each. Her voice and personal circumstances are sometimes so strong, using them all as a mouthpiece to state her own philosophies, or exhibit her familiar comedic style, it can be a little distracting. Yet the characters are no less vivid and entertaining as their visual-counterparts would undoubtedly be. Nor is it completely whimsical. The light-hearted tone is punctuated by moments of real poignancy, that lend the family authenticity. Mo looks in the mirror and notices with some disdain that her ageing face is her mothers. Her own daughter is just as eager to reject this physical connection, but her mirror holds demons of its own. Body image is a strong theme for the women in this book.
Oh Dear Sylvia book cover, published by Penguin
Dawn's second novel, Oh Dear Sivlia, is of a similar ilk – but better.
There are still an array of characters reminiscent of sketches – with Jamaican, Irish, Thai, and English accents for Dawn to flex her impressionist muscles with. They are still furnished with the opportunity to issue an uninhibited stream of verbal conscience and confession. In Oh Dear Silvia the audience is not a diary, but the silent form of Silvia, motionless in room 5 of a hospital's coma ward. But there are a greater breadth of characters this time, and, as they all orbit around Silvia, a more interesting plot is uncovered. Gradually Dawn teases out the connection between this diverse bunch, and the dark and complex truth that marks Silvia's past.
The greatest improvement, though, is that this book is not composed solely of first person narratives. This time Dawn has allowed her characters an independent existence, channeling her own distinctive voice – sometimes benign, sometimes sarcastic – into that of a fairytale narrator. For a fairytale is what the book becomes, and where Dawn's style is completely suited. A wicked 'step-mother' shares the page with a loving father, a gentle 'god-mother', and a ridiculous hippy for comedic relief. She masterfully melds pantomime with sections of beautiful prose.
Like every good fairytale, there is a comforting sense of hope and resolution. The moral of finding a future out of suffering, through fresh love and the security of family, is at its very heart. For there is no small dose of the customary paradoxical darkness. The book's poignancy penetrates much deeper than her last. This family face a blacker reality - of abuse, suicide, loneliness and death. Her quiet observations of the loss experienced within the hospitals walls, fleetingly glimpsed on the faces of visitors and patients passing through it's corridors, are intelligent and moving. No doubt living with her own mother's illness at the time of writing, informed this emotional depth.
Neither of Dawn's books are masterpieces, and those who can't forgive a disjointed structure or the occasional unnatural dialogue, will have room for grievance. But to my mind, they're far more enjoyable than many novels that claim that lofty title. On the daily commute or a dark winter evening, Dawn French's fiction will provide a warm, comical cuddle.