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A family's story unfolds in 'The Rain Before it Falls'
Associated Press
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Published: 5/30/2008 12:11 AM

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Jonathan Coe is a brilliant English novelist who isn't as well known here as he should be. If you've read his early work, you've discovered his manic inventiveness.

"The Rain Before It Falls" is different from its predecessors. In tone, it's neither ironic nor antic; in form, it's concentrated and controlled. Most of the novel is narrated by Rosamond, an elderly woman. She tells her story to a tape recorder, hoping that its eventual audience will be her much younger cousin Imogen: "What I want you to have, Imogen, above all, is a sense of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that made you." As she speaks, Rosamond describes a collection of family photographs. Imogen cannot see them herself because she is blind.

Many years ago, at the beginning of World War II, 8-year-old Rosamond was evacuated from Birmingham to safety with an aunt and uncle in Shropshire. There she and Beatrix, her older cousin, had a secret hideout in an abandoned caravan - Americans would call it a trailer - and there they pricked fingers and declared blood-sisterhood. Beatrix, neglected by her selfish, hot-tempered mother, was glad to make Rosamond her acolyte. When they were teenagers, Beatrix got pregnant and "had to marry" the father of her child, Thea. Rosamond gradually assumed the role of maiden aunt.

Rosamond's adult life, as recorded for Imogen, is mundane and satisfying. The dramatic interest of her story comes from her relationship with the feckless Beatrix and with Thea, the daughter Beatrix resents but will not allow Rosamond to mother. It's not surprising that as an adolescent, the neglected Thea acts with a sullen wildness that recalls her mother's youth. Like Beatrix, Thea gives birth to a resented child - Imogen.

This may not be the house of Atreus, but still there seems to be a tragic inevitability in the anger and violence that disfigure the women in each generation of this family. Patterns emerge: in the way mothers alternate "spasm(s) of maternal generosity" with "grievous bodily harm" to children.

Halfway through the novel, this patterning is expressed in a breathtaking musical image. At a student concert, the flutist begins with two long notes and a simple phrase; then she clicks the electronic switch that causes the notes to "blossom and multiply. Chords began to form, and loops of sound were created ... until the air seemed to be filled with a whole ensemble of flutes (in) uncanny concord ... as if (the music) were somehow drifting into the church not just from some remote, unvisited place, but from the distant past."

This image of sound-memory applies just as well to family photographs. Rosamond goes far beyond merely describing what people wore or the particular occasion. Her observations make the reader reflect on memory as mediated by photography: on the way a photograph can produce a phantom memory of something you may not actually have experienced; on the deceitfulness of the camera, for whom almost everybody smiles. When Rosamond muses on "the way the photograph has reduced (people) to an unnatural stillness, just when they are doing something as dynamic and joyful as ice-skating," she thinks of Pompeii. We might also think of Keats' Grecian urn, of "Silence and slow Time" captured in a two-dimensional image.

Coe won't allot more lyricism to a character than she can handle, and Rosamond remains the most prosaic member of her family. Yet there is beauty in her narrative. How interesting, then, that the force of Rosamond's own feelings sets the reader to wondering about her reliability as a narrator. But then, as Rosamond herself says, "family life is full of mystery," and a family history may raise as many questions as it answers. For the admiring reader, the question may be whether "The Rain Before It Falls" is a diversion for Jonathan Coe, or whether it quietly announces a new direction.