Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls, is one of those novels that are structured around pictures, mostly photographs (there’s one portrait) in this case. I have a particular fascination with old photographs myself, in the many stories that they may hold. So I’m drawn to fiction that uses that as a starting point.
Coe’s novel courses with loneliness, with failure, ‘blood-sister’ Beatrix, her best friend when she was a child. She does this after having selected 20 images (19 photographs and 1 painting), and describing them and the story surrounding them, into a cassette recording. The cassettes are meant for Imogen, whom she has seen only a few times in her life. Imogen, who was tragically blinded as a child.
The ‘recorded’ descriptions are natural and well-written, but in many cases they are really descriptions for descriptions sake. They don’t necessarily serve the purpose of the story, except as they are used to pull up memories. Just seems to be they sometimes went on longer than they needed to and did not further the story.
Rosamund’s story and the story of Beatrix and her daughter Thea (the mother of Imogen), as well as the stories of several other members of this extended ‘family’ have an all-too-familiar inevitableness to them. Some of this seems forced in the end, and crosses the line from family drama and tragedy into melodrama.
The mother and daughter thing seems an odd story for a male author to be tackling, though I’d have to say, nothing seems false here. Coe seems to have it right, at least where the relationships and recurring dynamics are concerned. Where he perhaps overreaches, is where he has gone one step too far, stretched the reader’s credibility, asked us to follow once more to the same places he’s already taken us. Yes, we understand the inevitability, the failure to break the patterns. Maybe Coe could have broken one for the reader though.