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Jonathan Coe's The Rain Before It Falls

Over the course of the recording, the reader learns that Rosamund grew up to be a rather sophisticated literary editor, which accounts, rather conveniently, for her ability to narrate with Coe’s verve. The cousins’ expedition into the chilly night showcases his economically lush powers of description:

"Figures — a whole row of tiny black figures — appeared in the distance, coming towards us across the field. In defiance of the blackout, some of them were carrying torches, and these needles of bobbing light danced like sad fireflies as they made their inevitable progress towards Beatrix, who stood and watched impassive, trembling slightly, but only with the cold, never thinking to turn and run, as I wanted to."

Rosamund takes up the photographs sequentially, but orderly exposition gives way to digressions through suddenly resurrected memories. The visual details are obscure clues that only Rosamund can bring to life, yet she would never be able to do so without being promted by the pictures. (To Imogen, the pictures would be useless, even if she could see.) A banal photograph of Beatrix’s barren kitchen tells the story of her first marriage: “I was astonished by what Beatrix gave us for dinner. Potatoes hard as stones, chicken lily-white and leaking blood…. Roger would push his plate aside, as if this is what he had (already) come to expect.”

The jarring leaps in time — again, there are only 20 photographs — dramatize the changes that the characters undergo over the years, and the reality that such changes can remain forever baffling even to people who have known one another since childhood. Despite the patterns that repeat themselves across the generations, the disjointed narrative wards off any idea that there really exists a continuous thread of a life to be followed, and shows what a labor it is for Rosamund to create a meaningful testament for Imogen.

The framing device — Gill and her daughters listen to the tapes, hoping to glean clues to help them track down Imogen — creates a superfluous echo of the narrative’s impact on the reader. But it is so decidedly flimsy as to not matter. What is notably missing is a fuller sense of why Rosamund chooses this task in her dying hours. Clearly, she could fill at least as many C-90s talking about Rebecca, her first lover. Perhaps it would require another character to construct, in the same way, the forces that made Rosamund. This observation reveals a glaring fact: After enduring the estrangement and dispersal of the women she sought to care for, and the death of the lover she “settled” for in Rebecca’s absence, it’s too late for anyone to provide her with what she offers Imogen, Gill and the reader: “Memories for which there are no pictures, no corroboration, no proof.”



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