Review

The Rain Before It Falls

by Jonathan Coe

The
philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “Life can only be
understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” That
observation might well serve as the epigraph for Jonathan
Coe’s somber and moving story of the toll emotional
estrangement exacts on the women of one otherwise unremarkable
British family.

THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS opens in 2006, when Gill learns of the
death of her ailing spinster Aunt Rosamond in a small Shropshire
village. After Rosamond’s funeral, the task of sifting
through the belongings left behind in her cottage falls to her
niece. Next to her aunt’s chair she makes a disturbing find:
the remains of a tumbler of malt whisky, alongside an empty bottle
of Diazepam. Equally startling is her discovery of four cassette
tapes and a piece of paper bearing the words “Gill --- These
are for Imogen. If you cannot find her, listen to them
yourself.”

That brief introduction provides the frame for the balance of the
novel, most of which consists of the playing of the tapes, as
Rosamond patiently and painstakingly describes for a young girl
named Imogen --- blinded in an accident at age three --- the
stories surrounding 19 carefully chosen snapshots and one portrait,
while Gill and her adult daughters sit transfixed, listening to the
story, “the gradual unveiling of their family’s occult,
unsuspected history.”

Rosamond’s account begins in 1941 when, like many of the
children residing in England’s cities, she has evacuated to
the countryside --- in her case Warden Farm, owned by her aunt and
uncle --- where she quickly develops a close relationship with her
cousin Beatrix, three years her senior. The two girls seal their
bond as “blood sisters” on the night of a poorly
planned escape from the farm, and it seems they have forged an
enduring friendship.

As Beatrix grows into adulthood, her frigid relationship with her
mother leads her into an ill-advised early marriage that produces a
daughter, Thea. When Beatrix decides to leave England to pursue a
Canadian man she has met in London, she begs Rosamond and her
partner, Rebecca, to look after the girl for a brief time. The time
lengthens from weeks into two years, and Rosamond experiences some
of the happiest moments of her life caring for the young girl. In
the midst of that interlude she realizes a bitter truth
“about happiness that has no flaws, no blemishes, no fault
line,” and that is “the certain knowledge that it will
have to come to an end.” Indeed, when Beatrix, a husband and
newborn son accompanying her, returns from Canada to reclaim Thea,
the girl’s departure fractures the relationship between
Rosamond and her lover and over time Rosamond and Beatrix drift
apart.

With apparent inevitability when viewed through the prism of
Rosamond’s memory, Beatrix’s estrangement from her
mother is reenacted in her relationship with Thea. In the 1970s,
Thea hooks up with a marginal rock musician, their liaison
producing Imogen, a beautiful girl with blonde hair and “deep
blue, sightless eyes that somehow manage to gleam so
brightly,” as Rosamond describes her portrait. Rosamond
doesn’t live to recount the end of the women’s story,
but when Thea and Gill ultimately connect we learn, as Gill
concludes, “Nothing was random after all.”

The events and places Rosamond describes aren’t, for the most
part, inherently dramatic --- the loss of a family pet, a seaside
picnic, a sumptuous Christmas dinner in a warmly lit farmhouse.
What gives this novel its depth is the way in which each of the
pictures slowly triggers an unlocking of Rosamond’s memories
to reveal an ever-widening story, more intricate and more tragic as
her narrative unwinds along with the reels of tape. Coe ably
channels Rosamond’s voice --- ruminative, melancholy,
restrained and frank. Her rich narrative gives the lie to her
observation that “A photograph is a poor thing. It can only
capture one moment, out of millions of moments, in the life of a
person, or the life of a house.”

THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS is a modest and yet thoughtful work. It
tenderly reveals the complexity of familial love, the damage we
inflict by the decision to offer or withhold it and the
understanding, never more than partial at best, sometimes glimpsed
at the end of a long life.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

The Rain Before It Falls
by Jonathan Coe

  • Publication Date: March 11, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307268039
  • ISBN-13: 9780307268037