Because of You, by Dawn French is one of the sixteen books on this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’m a big fan of Dawn French’s comedy sketches, but this is the first one of her novels that I’ve read. She’s been in the entertainment industry for a long time, and her brand is very well established. The chair of the prize committee calls it a “warm, compassionate, funny novel” and yes, there is a hint of her comedic style thanks to a Detective Inspector who bungles his words, but the novel itself is not a comedy. In my opinion, it’s a redemption story.
Dawn French narrates the audiobook and I think it’s her incredible skill and experience as a performer that makes this story sing. If you’ve got an Audible or Kobo credit to use, this is one to check out.
The opening of the novel is a bit intense. Two women, Anna and Hope, give birth to baby girls on New Year’s Day, 2000. Anna’s child, Florence, is healthy and robust but Hope’s child, Minnie, is stillborn. Heartbroken and distraught, Hope steals baby Florence and raises her as Minnie.
See what I mean? Not exactly the set up you’d expect for a comedy. It isn’t a tearjerker either though. It’s a story about motherhood and what it means to be a mom.
In an interview with ITV, French said that with this novel, she set out to stretch herself creatively. She wondered if it was possible to generate empathy for a character like Hope who does something so obviously wrong. And I think she succeeded.
What I love about this book, apart from French’s narration, is that the characters are layered. With the exception of Florence’s biological father who is a two-dimensional arsehole, none of these characters are “good” and none of them are “bad”. Although Hope’s crime is unforgivable, she loves Minnie and gives her a solid, happy upbringing. Given the marital tension between Anna and her husband, it’s not clear that Minnie would have had that with them.
Anna, as you can imagine, is destroyed when her child goes missing. If she’d become bitter and hateful, we wouldn’t have faulted her for it. However, she puts her daughter’s needs and emotions ahead of her own. She isn’t Mother Teresa, and obviously neither is Hope, but both women are mothers and it’s their maternal selflessness that allows this story to have a satisfying ending.
The audiobook is narrated by Dawn French. Pure entertainment.