Rain Before it Falls
Knopf, 256 pages, $23.95
can’t talk about the serious and the comic separately and
still be talking about life,” observed Peter DeVries, “any
more than you can independently discuss hydrogen and oxygen
and still be talking about water.” Yet when a writer writes
more than a passage or two of funny stuff, we rush to affix
a label. Although considered a comic novelist, most of DeVries’s
books have a darkness at the center; to similarly label the
likes of Thomas Berger and Joseph Heller is also to miss the
Being British, Jonathan Coe comes from a tradition in which
many comic writers (P.G. Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe) rarely get
serious, but Coe takes his place alongside Evelyn Waugh and
Kingsley Amis in his ability to uphold the DeVriesian dictate
of chemically integrating your water.
Rain Before it Falls is Coe’s fifth novel to be published
in the U.S.; his debut here, The Winshaw Legacy, is
a hilarious portrait of the Thatcher era as seen through the
misadventures of a novelist-cum-biographer whose involvement
with his subject proves more intricate than expected. It was
funny and biting enough to forgive the plat contrivances that
fueled its finish, but such contrivances grew even thicker
in his next novel, The House of Sleep. Emerging alongside
the mordant humor, however, was a crisp, elegant style, a
narrative ease that blossomed in The Rotters’ Club and
The Closed Circle, the two interconnected books that
Meditations on memory and perception inform all of the aforementioned,
but Coe’s latest dedicates itself entirely to such themes.
Dickensian coincidence gives way to careful patterning, so
that even the seemingly random act of a dog in flight proves
portentous. “Nothing was random, after all,” concludes Gill,
a woman whose actions kick the plot into motion. “There was
a pattern: a pattern to be found somewhere . . .”
Gill’s aunt, Rosamond, has died and left behind a packet of
photographs and cassette tapes intended for a long-vanished
friend named Imogen—someone Gill met but once, and then more
than 20 years earlier. And who is not to be found.
Gill is left to listen to the tapes in the hope of finding
Imogen’s whereabouts. Those cassettes, dictated during Rosamond’s
final hours, form the bulk of the novel as the story switches
to Rosamond’s voice. Her narrative hangs on 20 photographs,
each static image opening into a description of time and place—and
then emotion, circumstance and, above all, perception. Each
photo is an exercise in memory, and Rosamond’s memory is driven
by detail and pattern and pain.
This character easily could have fallen into the hoary category
of unreliable narrator, but Coe infuses her with a voice that
reveals impressively wrought layers of complexity. And, in
this story, reliability is too twined with perception to be
judged alone. Rosamond is too exacting, too fussy to be anything
less than trustworthy. But she develops high expectations
for herself and others and is often disappointed. In attempting
to shoehorn her life into a moral framework that doesn’t work,
we see, sooner than she, that there’s no such fit.
Much of the story takes place in the aftermath of World War
II, a period skillfully captured through dialogue and description.
Coe brings in such detail as Michael Powell’s 1950 movie Gone
to Earth, filmed in the Shropshire village where much
of the novel takes place, putting Rosamond and her cousin,
Beatrix, on the set as background actors.
A complicated relationship between the two grows throughout
the story, presented with enough emotional range to give it
credibility. Beatrix is unpredictable and inconsistent, and
a sense of unfulfillment torments Rosamond, even as her own
life grows controversial.
In Rosamond’s voice, her pursuit of Lesbian relationships
is almost unremarkable, although there will be unexpected
consequences. Meanwhile, Beatrix marries and has a daughter,
Thea, whom circumstance throws into Rosamond’s care.
This is the deftly-woven heart of the story, as Rosamond and
her lover, Rebecca, find room in their lives for this unexpected
child, who has become part of the family by photograph 12.
Not surprisingly for a writer with so much music in his prose,
Coe also draws on images from music. In this novel, Cantaloube’s
Songs of the Auvergne are a catalyst—in particular,
the song titled “Bailero,” which sparks the couple’s interest
in the area, and sets a key scene there.
The mystery of Imogen threads throughout the novel—a succession
of mysteries, actually, most of which are resolved at the
expense of Rosamond’s bright expectations. “Don’t let the
present wipe out the past,” Gill tells herself as the book
eases into its melancholy but hopeful conclusion—a beautifully
rendered succession of scenes that shores up one of Rosamond’s
earlier reflections: “There is nothing one can say, I suppose,
about happiness that has no flaws, no blemishes, no fault
lines; none, that is, except the certain knowledge that it
will have to come to an end.”