THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS
By Jonathan Coe
Alfred A. Knopf, 240 pages, $23.95
A middle-aged woman named Gill arrives at the home of her recently deceased Aunt Rosamond and discovers an empty Scotch glass, an empty bottle of sedatives and a set of cassette tapes stacked near a recorder and microphone. “These are for Imogen,” says a note near the tapes. “If you cannot find her, listen to them yourself.” This irresistible opening—as economic, in literary terms, as a flinch or a raised eyebrow in a comic sketch—establishes the tense, elegiac tone of Jonathan Coe’s small masterpiece, The Rain Before It Falls. A departure from the boisterous novels Mr. Coe is known for (his breakthrough was 1994’s What a Carve Up!, inanely retitled The Winshaw Legacy in America), the new novel traces the roots of a savage act through four generations of women.
Imogen, a second cousin of Gill’s, was adopted out of the family at age 3. As the tapes make clear, the dying Aunt Rosamond wanted to give Imogen a sense of her own history: “a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that made you.” She has chosen 20 photographs from her albums, and plans to describe each one to Imogen, who is blind. “I want you to know what they looked like, the people who came before you,” Rosamond says into the microphone, “the houses that they lived in, the places they visited. … It will give you a context in which to understand the difficult things, the painful things you will hear at the end.”
The history imparted is Rosamond’s, too: mainly the story of her friendship with her cousin Beatrix, Imogen’s grandmother. They had grown close during the war, when 8-year-old Rosamond was evacuated from Birmingham to her aunt and uncle’s farm in Shropshire. Describing the photographs from that summer, Rosamond wavers between nostalgia—clearly a dominating emotion in her life—and bitterness. Her aunt had not been kind to her; worse, had not been kind to Beatrix.
LOVE IS THE currency that’s spent, given, hoarded, withheld among the women in the novel. For lack of love from her parents, Beatrix becomes selfish and erratic, with a cruel streak. Rosamond, who has a surplus of love, can’t supply what Beatrix needs. Still, Rosamond remains loyal to her, and even parents Beatrix’s abandoned daughter, Thea, for two years until Beatrix snatches her back. Thea, too, was in danger of not being loved:
“Saving her from this fate had become my secret responsibility. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that it had taken on, for me, the nature of a sacred duty. But then after all these years, Imogen, nothing seems quite so simple, quite so clear-cut. Was it really your mother who was starved of love, or was it me?”
Here and there, in her legato progression through the decades, Rosamond follows a tangent about her own emotional life—a lost love, or her obsessive viewings of a film of the late 1940’s in which she and Beatrix can be glimpsed as extras. These digressions yield the richest ore in the novel. But it’s also satisfying when Gill—who listens to the tapes with her two adult daughters—periodically turns off the oral history, drawing the reader back to the present-day and the search for Imogen.
LAST OCTOBER IN the Guardian, Mr. Coe described his discovery, at 21, of the Virago Modern Classics: paperback reprints of significant but largely forgotten women writers like Dorothy Richardson and Rosamond Lehmann (who had a sister named Beatrix). While his friends were clamoring over Martin Amis and other clever young men, Jonathan Coe was making his way through the Virago novels, steeping himself in prewar women’s writing—often experimental and political work, kicking against the unreality of what passed for realistic fiction at the time, as well as the dim expectations for women writers. The Rain Before It Falls, he remarks, “is intended (among other things) as an homage to the whole list and the authors which it reintroduced.”
It’s hard to imagine a more affectionate tribute to these writers than Rosamond’s mesmerizing voice—kind but unsparing, inexorably advancing toward events she can hardly bear to describe. The exuberance in the novel belongs to Beatrix and Thea, but faithful Rosamond has the last word.
Regina Marler is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate. She can be reached at email@example.com.