Jonathan Coe: The Rain Before it Falls
Another fine novel from Coe, this one tells the story of Rosamond, a seventy-three old woman who, at the beginning of the novel, has just died, possibly by suicide. She has left four cassette tapes and nineteen photos and a painting which she has asked her executor, her niece Gill, to pass to her second cousin once removed, Imogen, with whom she has lost touch, along with a legacy. The novel is essentially Rosamond’s tale, told to the tapes, about Imogen’s background and about her – Rosamond’s – life as it interacts with Imogen, and Imogen’s mother and grandmother.
The tapes are listened to by Gill and her two daughters, Elizabeth and Catharine. The tapes are chronological and are commentary on the photos/painting. They start with a photo of Rosamond’s parents’ home in Birmingham, shortly before World War II, and end with a photo taken at Rosamond’s fiftieth birthday party, the last time she saw Imogen. Rosamond was evacuated during the War and went and stayed with her uncle and aunt in Shropshire. There she met her cousin, Beatrix, three years her senior. But Beatrix was unhappy, as her mother, Ivy, doted on her sons and on her position in the village but had no time for her daughter. Rosamond and Beatrix became close – they actually became blood sisters – and even ran away together (but not very far). They did see one another later, in particular when Beatrix and her mother visited Rosamond and her family in Birmingham, when Beatrix was entrusted with looking after her mother’s dog but the animal ran away, never to be found, causing further rupture between mother and daughter. They even both appeared as extras in Gone to Earth, which was filmed near Rosamond’s uncle and aunt’s farm.
But things started changing. Rosamond became engaged to Maurice but broke it off. He came rushing down from Birmingham to her flat in London, only to find her naked in bed with Rebecca, who would be the love of Rosamond’s life. Meanwhile, Beatrix had got pregnant with Roger and they had got married. It was clearly an unhappy marriage and led to the birth of Thea. Beatrix soon ran off with Jack, a carpenter she met during the filming of Gone to Earth and the three of them went off to Ireland for three years in a gypsy caravan. When Beatrix reappeared, she had fallen for a Canadian and was planning to go off to Canada – without Thea. She asked Rosamond, who was now living with Rebecca, to look after Thea for a short while, which turned out to be two years and this had a huge influence on both women. Rebecca realised that she wanted to be a mother and, once Thea was taken back by her mother, left Rosamond and married. Rosamond was devastated and remained single for a long time, till she met Ruth, a painter, much later in life.
Poor Thea did not have a happy childhood, as Beatrix had had two children with her new marriage and her mother treated her as badly as her mother had been treated by Ivy. Rosamond saw Thea now and then, meeting up with her when she had a young child – Imogen – living a hippy existence with Martin, a roadie, who soon went off. We had learned early on that Imogen was blind and we now find out why and we learn the story of her life and the not too happy existence of Thea and Beatrix. With the possible suicide of Rosamond, this appears, at least in the earlier generations, to be a family that is, if not cursed, at least destined to have much unhappiness. Coe’s clever way of using the tapes and photos/painting to tell the story is highly effective and, as usual, he keeps us enthralled to the end of his story.
First published 2007 by Viking