A do­mes­tic tragedy played out in pic­tures

The Rain Be­fore it Falls By Jonathan Coe Vik­ing, 278pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

EARLY in Jonathan Coe’s new novel a young wo­man, El­iz­a­beth, finds her at­ten­tion drawn to an old fam­ily pho­to­graph con­tain­ing a ‘‘ ghostly pro­jec­tion of her mother’s younger self’’. For the first time she recog­nises her mother was once beau­ti­ful. She is puz­zled by how much re­mains hid­den. What was this wo­man think­ing or feel­ing all those years be­fore? Why is it, she asks, that ‘‘ fam­ily pho­to­graphs . . . make ev­ery­one ap­pear so un­read­able?’’

Good ques­tion. Per­haps it is dis­tance in time that ob­scures. Or a flaw in the tech­nol­ogy that claims to cap­ture re­al­ity, yet gives us only sliv­ers of it, hooks too frag­ile to hang hu­man per­son­al­ity on. But the like­li­est an­swer is more bor­ing. Be­fore Po­laroids gave us in­stant vis­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion and the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion freed us to squan­der or ma­nip­u­late images un­til we achieved a de­sired out­come, pho­tog­ra­phy was rel­a­tively fru­gal, re­tain­ing the ves­ti­gial for­mal­ity of por­trai­ture. Sub­jects obliged the cam­era, ar­rang­ing their fea­tures for the shut­ter’s click, pack­ing away deeper parts of them­selves for the larger so­cial mo­ment. This gap be­tween the im­age cap­tured and the re­al­ity with­held is el­e­gantly ex­ploited in The Rain Be­fore it Falls , a do­mes­tic tragedy dis­guised as a photo album. In its pages 20 pic­tures, span­ning five decades in the life of one fam­ily, are de­scribed for a young blind wo­man in­ti­mately bound up with the lives nar­rated yet who has grown up in ig­no­rance of them.

The wo­man who trans­lates th­ese pic­tures into words is Rosamond. At 73, she has re­turned to her na­tive Shrop­shire af­ter a dis­tin­guished pub­lish­ing ca­reer in Lon­don. There is a touch of the grande dame about her, a stee­li­ness and re­serve that have partly to do with her sex­u­al­ity ( she never re­lin­quished the self- con­ceal­ing tac­tics les­bians were obliged to use in Bri­tain dur­ing the im­me­di­ate post- war decades) but are also partly the emo­tional af­ter- ef­fects of three cru­cial re­la­tion­ships: an early bond with her way­ward cousin, Beatrix; Re­becca, her only grand pas­sion; and Thea, Beatrix’s daugh­ter, who be­comes mother in turn to Imo­gen, the blind girl to whom Rosamond speaks us­ing an old tape recorder.

Dur­ing the course of a night, seven cas­settes and two bot­tles of sin­gle malt, Rosamond un­rav­els decades’ worth of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional knots. Her method: to fid­dle with false ends be­fore re­sort­ing to the Gor­dian slice. She cir­cles events, al­low­ing an im­age to sum­mon vague rec­ol­lec­tions and au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal asides, only to drop a blade through the mid­dle of a sen­tence. In pro­vid­ing the back­ground to a wartime shot of a fam­ily pic­nic, for in­stance, Rosamond dwells on her un­cle’s tie, her aunt’s un­usual smell, along with other tiny de­tails, be­fore adding ‘‘ in case you are not aware of it, Beatrix is your grand­mother’’.

It’s hard to say more with­out spoil­ing the plot. The rea­sons for Imo­gen’s in­no­cence of her own back­ground pro­vide the nar­ra­tive’s one con­tin­u­ous thread. It is enough to say Rosamond speaks with a heavy sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity, as the only per­son alive who knows enough of the story to tell it. She ex­plains the tapes have been recorded out of love, a se­cret sense of duty, and a de­sire to sal­vage lives bro­ken be­fore they even be­gan.

Of course, be­hind Rosamond is Coe play­ing ven­tril­o­quist, and he does a mar­vel­lous job. You can al­most smell the peat- flavoured whisky on her breath as the old girl’s record­ings move from crisp­ness to can­dour to con­fu­sion. It’s no small achieve­ment, ei­ther, to en­ter with such imag­i­na­tive sym­pa­thy into the minds of those women, young and old, who are the sole play­ers of the cast. The lad­dish tone of Coe’s best- known novel, The Rot­ters Club , is neatly in­verted here.

What The Rain Be­fore it Falls does share with Coe’s ear­lier fiction is a de­light in his­tor­i­cal tex­ture. If The Rot­ter’s Club was a deliri­ous pais­ley swirl of 1970s kitsch, this latest uses its pho­to­graphic props with sim­i­lar verve. Set against the aw­ful events of the larger nar­ra­tive, they add to the melan­choly. As Rosamond ex­plains when de­scrib­ing the hap­pi­est of all her pho­to­graphs: ‘‘ 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.’’

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is Syd­ney lit­er­ary critic.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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