A domestic tragedy played out in pictures
The Rain Before it Falls By Jonathan Coe Viking, 278pp, $ 32.95
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.