Saturday, 6 October 2007

The Rain Before it Falls by Jonathan Coe

Rosamond is dead. Imogen is missing. Those who remain have been entrusted with delivering a message, recorded on four C90 cassette tapes, from the dead woman to the beloved granddaughter of Beatrix, her childhood friend.

When all efforts to find Imogen fail, the family listen to the tapes, and experience what Jonathan Coe describes as: “The gradual unveiling of their family’s occult, unsuspecting history.”

In The Rain Before It falls, Coe has reinvented the weighty three-generation novel for the 21st century by giving his narrator 20 photographs to describe. It’s a simple, effective device; presenting the ups and mainly downs of a family in bite-size chunks. It allows a narrative without longueures, made up solely of vivid vignettes.

The device has an internal logic because Imogen is blind and Rosamond wants to leave her the gift the sighted have, of using photos to evoke a moment in a distant day, or to give form to a grandmother unseen for decades. So she talks, as if direct to camera, rather like one of the posher of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads: more Anna Massey than Thora Hird.

The pictures are triggers from which ripples of memory awaken wider recollections: evoking the small but searing childhood hurts that are never forgotten.

An early picture is of Beatrix by an icy pond with Bonaparte, her mother’s dog. Immediately after the picture was taken, the dog ran away, never to be seen again. For Rosamond, the photo captures Beatrix in “all her despair, all her terrible sense of loss, all her horror at the thought of what awaited her when we returned to the house and told her mother the news.”

As with all the pictures Rosamond describes, it is the gateway to a fundamental truth. Here it is that Beatrix’s mother does not love her.

A later picture reveals that, in turn, Beatrix has no love for her own daughter, Thea. The photo is of Beatrix’s kitchen, a kitchen in which, Rosamond recalls, she never cooked and where the jars marked Flour and Bread are poignant because the labels “are references to what they should have contained, not what was actually in them”: just as this house was not a loving home for the girl born into it.

And Thea, in her turn, has no love for Imogen. Rosamond recalls her, showing devotion to her indifferent husband, “even…when you…were the one lying on your back in your cot and screaming for attention.”

The Rain Before it Falls is very different to the graphic tales of familial abuse that are all the vogue yet, in capturing the everyday pain of the unloved, it is far more powerful, and effective.

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