Dawn French. Picture: Getty Images

Those with no Latin can look up the inscription at the beginning of the second novel from British comedienne Dawn French and find out that it means: "This was written in death, grief and love."

And Biggs, to whom she dedicates this third book (and second novel) is the new man in her life, Mark Bignell, boss of a charity to rehabilitate young people with drug-related problems, co-founded by her mum.

The death was, sadly, that of French's mother by lung cancer at the age of 77 in March this year after a 60-fags-a-day habit finally claimed her life.

Bearing that in mind, what can we expect from Oh Dear Silvia? On the one hand we have probably the funniest woman in Britain as author; on the other we have her writing through the demise of a parent to whom she was very close. Hold that thought.

Dear Fatty was French's best-selling 2008 memoir. Her first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, was published in 2010 and again shot to number one best-seller spot. The latter was told through the eyes of three characters of a dysfunctional family. ("I actually don't know what a functional family is," French said on one TV interview. "Is it a family who are quiet, read books and play musical instruments? Honestly, I think we are all dysfunctional.")

Oh Dear Sylvia takes a similar format to Marvellous in that it is told through the eyes of friends, families and nurses who visit and tend to Silvia Shute, who is in a coma in hospital, in suite Number 5.

As each character - a nurse, her cleaning lady, her lover, her daughter, her sister, her ex-husband - comes to talk to her life-supported body, the story of their collective past emerges - slowly, like a developing photo before we went digital. It's not just family history that gets an airing in the coma suite, but secrets come out - some very dark.

Back to the question of whether this book is comic or tragic. Answer: tragi-comic -- of course. But the surprise is French reveals herself to have a sound understanding on the deeper machinations of human relationships, a mature and affectionate take on the frailties and fabulousness that reside in a single human being, on paradox, desire, disappointment, the human heart and the hilarity of people.

There are Flaubert-type takes on wayward women and odd men at one end of the spectrum of literature; there are Mills & Boon representations that fall off the other end. French resides betwixt between, leaning towards the populist, but not because it is feather-light. The device of using Silvia's room as a confessional, for example, heightens the telling of this family mystery story - it's theatrical and visual: note that the strip scene could directly translate into a comedy sketch.

The humane benchmark of this book comes from Winnie the Jamaican Cockney God-fearing Coma Suite nurse: "Mi haffi tell yu Silvia. Me got doves in mi heart today. Dem all coo away, surpise yu cyan hear it. H'Edward tek mi up to 'im forest last night . . . Mi nevva haffi time dese days to h'appreciate nature enough, an' it such a place of God, Silvia. He is dere in h'every lickle ting . . . Mi know it so clear."

What is fully revealed in Oh Dear Sylvia is the comedienne's grip on expression of character through dialogue. How we express ourselves is, after all, most obviously how we reveal ourselves and French is the mistress of revelation - shocking, funny, terrible and tender.

What we gain from the actress through her books is a world we can all recognise - from those dark shadowy places we try to stay away from and pretend are nothing to do with us, to those euphorically triumphant spaces where love holds the trump card and pours balm into life's war wounds, even the death of those we will forever need.

The West Australian

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