What are the elements of a good comic novel?
If you were to ask Dawn French, the British humorist, television personality and author of the new book "Oh Dear Silvia," she'd probably tell you: a title character who never speaks, because she's in a coma. A psychotic stalker who'll stop at nothing to possess the object of her desire. A deeply dysfunctional, fractured family.
Oh, and a grisly, lethal crime.
"Oh Dear Silvia" takes place entirely in the intensive-care ward of a London hospital where Silvia, recently estranged from her husband, lies unconscious. How she got there, and why, is revealed by the parade of visitors who come to visit her.
There's Winnie, a West Indian immigrant who speaks in a rich patois and is Silvia's primary caregiver (and gatekeeper). There's meek Ed, Silvia's long-suffering husband, who unwillingly split with Silvia just days before the accident (was it an accident?) that put her in a coma. Is that Jo, Silvia's kooky sister, bypassing hospital procedure with another wacky swing at a new-age cure? Here comes Cat, Silvia's unstrung (and occasionally violent) frenemy who alternates loving words with sucker punches. And let's leave room for Cassie, Silvia's untrusting daughter, who doesn't know it yet, but will soon long for a meaningful reunion.
The visitors swirl around Silvia over the course of a week or so, visiting independently and talking mainly to Silvia (or rather, at Silvia, since it's not clear whether she can hear them or not; she certainly can't respond). All have stories that, as they accumulate, start to explain Silvia's strange, twisted life. Was Silvia a victim of a string of people who took advantage of her? Or was she culpable in creating the festering world that led to her injury?
Not an easy context for comedy. And yet, French, whose gift for voices is prodigious, manages to tear back the muddy curtains to allow sparkling rays of jubilant sunshine to dance over Silvia's decrepitude. Amidst all the despair and soul-searching in Silvia's hospital room, jokes are told, songs are sung, and romances blossom. If Silvia's the eye of a storm, it's a life-affirming storm, one that destroys everything in its path — except the seedlings of what grows next.