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Jonathan Coe's The Rain Before It Falls

The Stop Smiling Review

(Knopf)

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Rain Before It Falls
By Jonathan Coe
(Knopf)

Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls is told largely in the words of the elderly Rosamund, who records the narrative on four audiocassettes while consuming a fatal dose of Valium and Scotch at her home in Shropshire, England. In her will, she has instructed her niece Gill to track down her cousin Beatrix’s granddaughter, Imogen, and deliver the tapes to her. The objective is to give Imogen “a sense of where you came from, and of the forces that made you,” she explains on the first tape. To do this, she determines to tell “the story of my own life — up to the point you left it” — 20 years before, when Imogen’s “new family” cut off her contact with Rosamund. The septuagenarian woman — that is to say, Coe — devises an ingenious method for fulfilling that awesome promise: she sets out to describe for Imogen, who was blinded at an early age, a sequence of twenty photographs culled from Rosamund’s attic.

The novel is crafted in such a way that any further disclosure feels like a spoiler. Not that there’s stunning revelation at the end; Coe quietly unfurls the story’s tightly wound fabric, which has as much to do with the narrator’s telling as what is told. The Rain Before It Falls suggests the infinite number of events and memories that comprise a life. Paradoxically, it does so by focusing on so few images, exploiting the fact that a picture does not reveal a single instant frozen in time, but rather, conceals countless invisible truths: “what was going through the minds of the people” in a photo; what happened just before or after it was taken; what Rosamund knows now that she didn’t in that instant.

The Rain seems utterly different from Coe’s previous bitter satires, such as The Winshaw Legacy and House of Sleep. This book is less like a witty country-house party and more like, well, a lonely old person downing a bottle and recounting painful memories. While Rosamund can almost be heard giving a private chuckle at her own wry recollections, her listeners and readers will be too uneasy to smile. However, the pointedly mediated narrative on offer in this novel, in which memory is bewitched by images that resonate across decades, is common among Coe’s books. The Winshaw Legacy’s narrator, Michael Owen, is a novelist hired to write a prominent family’s biography. Just like Rosamund, he has an obsession with an old British movie representing a kitsch version of the country’s past, one that dates to a childhood encounter with the movie’s star.

While Coe’s portrait of Britain in Rain is less satirical than in previous books, it’s all the sadder that a kind of social decay is the unquestioned backdrop. Beginning in the bucolic 1940s countryside, the novel leads to a wretched trailer park in 1975. Rosamund’s inability to remain in Imogen’s life is due in part to an unbridgeable social divide between elite London, where she lived a self-sufficient life with a female lover, and provincial Britain, where the rest of the characters’ fates are casually tossed to and fro by the actions of bulldoggish men.

Once Gill presses “play,” the novel gives way to Rosamund’s monologue, tracing her presence in the damaged lives of Beatrix; Beatrix’s daughter, Thea; and Imogen, Thea’s daughter. It begins with the World War II evacuation of children from Britain’s cities to the country. Rosamund had the luck to be sent from Birmingham to her own aunt and uncle’s estate, Warden Farm, in Shropshire. A group photograph taken there prompts Rosamund to recount how, as a six-year-old, she and Beatrix, then 11, plotted to run away, seemingly establishing Rosamund’s determination to throw her lot in with her cousin. Of course, it ends after a few hours, with Rosamund frustrated in her goal of returning home to London but Beatrix satisfied in hers: gaining the attention, however hostile, of her distant parents.

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