The Rain Before It Falls
Jonathan Coe
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Buy *The Rain Before It Falls* by Jonathan Coe online

The Rain Before It Falls
Jonathan Coe
256 pages
March 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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"Perhaps there's nothing random after all, but a pattern somewhere," says seventy-three-year-old Rosamond as she frantically speaks into a microphone alone in the sitting room of her bungalow in Shropshire. Although close to death, Rosamond has suddenly become instilled with a sense of duty, her shadowy and nebulous emotions tempered by the fact that she must give a woman named Imogen a sense of her own history, of where she came from and the forces that made her.

Upon Rosamond's death, her great-niece, Gill, is given the job of settling her estate. Among the accumulation of Rosamond's belongings, she not only discovers a series of jewel cases of cassette tapes of Rosamond's voice, but also a series of photos that have apparently been gifted by Rosamond to Imogen. Gill does remember a woman called Imogen but only vaguely recalls meeting her once, and that was more than twenty years ago.

A connection to this mysterious woman proves hard for Gill to find. Rosamond has left no children, and her longtime companion - a woman called Ruth - died some years earlier. Rosamond's sister, Sylvia, is also dead, and none of them have left any indication to the whereabouts of Imogen. Helped by her two daughters, Catharine and Elizabeth, Gill tries to investigate, wondering what could possibly have motivated her great-aunt to arrange such a strange and eccentric bequest.

If Gill is, by some chance, unable to locate the mysterious Imogen, Rosamond has requested that Gill listen to the tapes herself. With her thoughts drifting randomly, floating and un-tethered, she gathers together Catharine and Elizabeth to listen, the three women unwilling to turn their back on Rosamund's unusual appeal.

What begins as the ramblings of an old woman soon becomes a touching story of the lifelong friendship between two cousins who were once so close that they could have been sisters. Both endured decades together, mutually embroiled in unrequited love and failed marriages, both bearing their fair share of hardship and pain.

Rosamond grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, but it is in 1941 at her aunt and uncle's Wardon Farm in bucolic Shropshire that Rosamond meets eleven-year-old Beatrix. She quickly becomes Rosamond's ally and sister, the bond between them lasting throughout most their adult lives. Rosamond eventually becomes a sort of substitute mother to Beatrix's wayward and unloved daughter, Thea, and later, Thea's damaged offspring.

As Rosamond's narrative gradually unfurls, it becomes filled with the collateral damage of the unsuitable relationships and bad choices that Beatrix, and later Thea, makes. Even when Rosamond finds the person of her dreams and falls into the arms of Rebecca, Beatrix cannot help but try and sabotage the relationship.

Consumed by rage at what a cruel and manipulative person Beatrix has become, Rosamond tries to rescue Thea. For her part, Thea is totally unaware of the twists and turns her own narrative is about to take, a fragile sense of security underpinning everything she does, her life always on the verge of "splintering forever into fragments."

Under the watchful eye of these twenty photographs, Rosamond's life takes place against a backdrop of a brutally repressive 1950's England, and of a prejudice that is often subtle and unspoken but unmistakably there, time and again over the years. The use of imagery remains central to her journey, the photos providing the key to her travails: from the blazing gold fields of Shropshire, to a boat on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, to the gaunt and somber silhouettes of Warden Farm standing out blackly in the moonlight.

Moving from Birmingham, to Shropshire and its surrounds, to swinging London in the Sixties and Seventies then onto the chilly suburbs of Toronto, this novel uses imagery as a looking glass to show the nature of memory and how our patterns of existence can ultimately shape how we see and how we relate to each other.

A perfectly tempered exploration of frustrated mothers and unfulfilled daughters, even unhappy grandmothers, the author rolls out his prose gracefully and meticulously, his economics of style perhaps reflecting the steely English reserve of his characters. Ultimately a testament to the resilience of the human condition, The Rain Before It Falls mostly works as an authentication of three generations of women who are forced to navigate their way through a minefield of life's despair and disappointments, desperately searching for love and for some kind of happiness.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2008

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