Jonathan Coe's new novel (new over here, out since last fall in the U.K) marks something of a departure for him; but I read it in one sitting. The author of The Rotter's Club, The Closed Circle and the wonderful What a Carve-Up!, The Rain Before it Falls centres on a family history narrated via cassette by Rosamond, who before taking her life with Scotch and pills, laid out her remarkable story of tumult and unintended consequence coupled with a series of photographs taken at opportune moments from 1941 to the early 80s.
Rosamond addresses the story of her family and her life to the main beneficiary of her estate Imogen, whom Rosamond met only once decades ago.
Imogen is the granddaughter of Beatrix, Rosamond's tempestuous childhood friend.
Rosamond's niece Gill is charged with finding Imogen to make the tapes available. Unable to do so, Gill listens to the tapes Rosamond made, and that narrative makes up the bulk of the book.
This conceit is not uncommon, but Rosamond's interpretation of each of the twenty photographs leaves Coe the room to explore themes of casual cruelty, betrayal and disquiet and small attempts at humanity in this sad, beautiful novel.
"Everybody smiles for photographs," Rosamond tells us. "That's one of the reasons you should never trust them."
This telling line serves as a narrative pull in a slick bit of architecture the Coe pulls off admirably.
Behind the smiles and set pieces of any family's life, the banal and high drama can often last for years. In the case of Beatrix, her daughter Thea, and finally the "inevitable" Imogen, the savior of the novel insofar as she can be, the treatment of those closest to us can easily reverberate for generations.
For Coe to write at least a half dozen complete, compelling and nuanced female characters is admirable enough. To do it as well as Ian McEwan (I was reminded of On Chesil Beach from time to time) and certainly a great deal better than several celebrated (and unnamed) book club standbys is a testament to a writer who can now lay claim as one of Britain's finest.
The Rain Before it Falls is a slim, lovely miracle.
Posted by Dave