Friday 12 November 2010

A Tiny Bit Marvellous, Dawn French

As a general rule I stay away from celebrity-penned books, whether they be fiction or non-fiction, and always look at the inside pages to see if I can deduce who really did the writing. Actress and comedienne Dawn French was an exception: I was well aware that she is a. literate and b. absolutely hilarious, so when her second book and first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous unexpectedly turned up in my shop, I decided I would have a nosy.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous is told from the points of view of various members of the Battle family: mother Mo, daughter Dora and son Peter Oscar. It was clear right from the start who the author was of this book, and it took me a long time to shake Ms French's voice out of my head, at least in Dora's and Mo's chapters. Oscar was another entity entirely: a teenage boy who is convinced that he is Oscar Wilde. He is not. His voice is not believably that of Wilde, but is heavily influenced by the playwright, and gives the sense of someone who is trying too hard. Interestingly I found myself reminded more of Wilde's modern-day counterpart, Stephen Fry, but the teenage Fry as captured somewhat self-denigratingly between the pages of his first memoir, Moab is my Washpot, and then caricatured as much as possible.

My early expectations of Marvellous were that it would be a bit of light-hearted, rather brainless and amusing fluff. The characters all live in their own little bubbles, and there is humour in the irony of two family members completely misunderstanding each other. Yet very quickly I came to recognise deeper levels in the narrative. First impressions of Dora, who turns eighteen very soon, are of a loud, obnoxious and bratty chav girl, reminiscent of Catherine Tate's character Lauren "Bovvered?!" Cooper. Underneath her rage and attitude is a pile of insecurity, even self-hatred - bringing to mind another Catherine Tate character, Doctor Who's Donna Noble. Mum Mo spends most of the book in bafflement about every aspect of her daughter, then shows some surprising insight. The irony and misunderstandings become more heartbreaking as they show the characters' loneliness and I found myself wanting to sit everyone down and make them talk about what they really think and feel.

There isn't a lot of plot, it has to be said. French does an excellent job at capturing family life where everyone feels isolated and confused, but are held together by thin but sturdy ties of love. After a slow start, the story kicks off in about the last third of the book, with a bit of suspense, danger and a shock twist. At the climax, it becomes clear who is really the sane person who holds the family together when it seems it should have fallen to pieces long ago.

An enjoyable, easy read with a big heart.

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