IF ever there was a recipe for giving away too much information, it’s the device that frames “The Rain Before It Falls,” Jonathan Coe’s new novel, spanning several generations of difficult Englishwomen in the second half of the 20th century.
Just before she dies, Rosamond, a Shropshire retiree in her early 70s, leaves a set of recorded cassette tapes and 20 family photographs, hoping that her niece and executor, Gill, will send them on to Imogen, a beloved relative who was blinded as a child and whom Rosamond lost track of years ago. When Imogen can’t be found, Gill settles in to listen to the old woman’s taped account -- based on minute descriptions of each photo in the context of its time and place -- of a devastating history of willful damage and malign neglect passed down through the female line.
The novel’s frame -- which was likely inspired by similar circumstances surrounding the death of the writer B.S. Johnson, of whom Coe wrote an admiring biography -- is neither far-fetched nor especially new (it’s a favorite movie trick for tracking back and forth in time), but here it lends itself to an efflorescence of description and explanation that overwhelms Coe’s spare, precise prose. Laced with small but regular explosions of melodrama, “The Rain Before It Falls” is a surprisingly earnest departure from the biting sociopolitical commentary that won Coe acclaim for his postmodern satires of Britain in the 1970s (“The Rotters’ Club”) and ‘80s (“What a Carve Up!”).
For all Rosamund’s uncloseted lesbianism in an era inhospitable to homosexuality -- and a florid early crush on Jennifer Jones (in a rare flash of situation comedy, she finds herself standing mute next to the actress on the Shropshire set of “Gone to Earth,” a steamy potboiler by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, no strangers to female-driven melodrama) -- this respectable publisher admits having “hardly been one of nature’s rebels or mavericks.” Despite her attraction to headstrong women, it’s an understatement; you can practically feel her holding her nose at the advance of modernity.
Evacuated during World War II from a Birmingham suburb to live with horsy relatives on a Shropshire farm, Rosamond came under the influence of her older cousin Beatrix, the high-strung daughter of Ivy, an alternately indifferent and abusive mother. Beatrix passes this maternal insufficiency on to her own daughter, Thea, a similarly unhinged baggage, whose inattention to her daughter, Imogen, results in the child losing her sight at the tender age of 3.
It falls to Rosamond to try to redress these wrongs and later to chronicle them in (whether Coe intends it or not) the stilted upper-crust diction affected by American movie stars of the 1940s. A compulsive scene-setter, Rosamond records exhaustive descriptions of the Shropshire countryside along with the repetitive suffering of the women who inhabit this successively golden and gray landscape.
Coe has said that he found his groove as a novelist once he stopped writing about men and instead focused on women. Yet if the husbands, fathers and brothers in the novel are shadowy figures who hover in the background and slink off at the first sign of trouble, the women too come off as oddly insubstantial, despite their extreme temperaments. The plot itself is larded with signs and portents. A runaway poodle is made to bear more emotional gravitas than the episode can sustain, and when it comes to car accidents this is one serially unlucky family. The occasional spate of clairvoyance and other trappings of the occult sit uneasily within the book’s stolid psychological realism, defying rational explanation and suggesting an elusiveness of meaning not borne out by the predictable fates that befall the principals.
“Family life is full of mystery,” Rosamond muses, a touch redundantly, to the absent Imogen early in the novel. I’ll drink to that, but I would have liked more mystery and less explication, less ironclad inevitability in the transformation of abandoned daughters into mommies from hell. Done right (see “Atonement,” the book, not the movie), the multigenerational family saga -- with its ups and downs, its infinite expansion and rich complication of character and circumstance, and a world war thrown in for dramatic backdrop -- can’t help but be irresistible.
One senses that “The Rain Before It Falls,” a compassionate portrait of women who disappoint themselves and their loved ones on almost every front, is a deeply personal novel for Coe. He’s very good at depicting the tipping point at which unloved children who have moved heaven and earth to gain the affection of their parents suddenly rear up and turn on them. But his tribute to these particular damaged goods seems inspired more by abstract ideas about ineluctable destiny than by the vagaries of real flesh and blood.