On Tuesday I took it into my head to wonder whether I was still intolerant to alcohol. It’s common among people who suffer from chronic fatigue, although some escape; in any case, eliminating alcohol, caffeine and sugar from your diet is one of the first things any decent doctor/informative website will suggest that you do, and it certainly made a difference for me. But lately I’ve been feeling so much better that I wondered whether I could get away with it, and it is so very useful, socially, to be able to drink just a glass of wine. I’ve become hardened now to people disapproving of my party pooper ways, but a bit of Dutch courage in social situations never goes amiss. So I happened to be cooking a risotto and I added a splash of wine to the rice. It tasted lovely. But yesterday I was completely wrecked, as if I had inadvertently dashed into the path of an oncoming juggernaut in my sleep, which suggests that, guess what! I am still extremely intolerant. My son is off on his Easter holidays and fortunately is no longer at an age where I have to play with him as if nothing were wrong. ‘You have a hangover?’ he asked me, starting to grin from ear to ear. ‘From a plate of risotto?’ Yes, I am that wimp.
Fortunately I had a book to read that was good for a woman in a fragile state, the kind of novel that slips down very easily while still making you feel that you are reading something notable, intriguing, profound. Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls is a slip of a book that makes for deceptively easy reading. There’s a frame narrative, in which Gill, a woman with grown-up daughters, discovers that her elderly aunt Rosamund has recently died and left behind a strange legacy for her to deal with. She has bequeathed a packet of tapes to a lost family member, Imogen, someone Gill met only once, more than twenty years ago at one of her aunt’s parties. She remembered her particularly because she was blind. The hunt for Imogen proves futile and so Gill and her daughters listen to the tapes themselves, uncovering a tragic family tale about which they know nothing.
Rosamund’s taped story provides the vast majority of the remaining narrative and is organized around twenty old photographs that she wishes to describe to the sightless Imogen. These photos recount how Imogen was ‘inevitable’, as Rosamund describes her, the right that comes out of a whole series of wrongs. The story begins back in the Second World War, when Rosamund was evacuated to Shropshire to stay with her aunt and uncle and her cousin, Beatrix. The two girls bond, particularly over an incident when they attempt to run away together, Rosamund to cure her terrible homesickness, Beatrix to escape a family situation that is intolerable to her. Aunt Ivy appears on the surface to be a warm and loving person, but when it comes to her daughter, she has only coldness and criticism. Hearing Beatrix get ticked off (unjustly) one day, Rosamund is chilled by the tone of Ivy’s voice: ‘She didn’t raise it, not at all. If she had, it might have been less upsetting. Throughout the five minutes or so that Beatrix was inside, she spoke in a low monotone which I can only describe – trying to choose my words carefully, here, without exaggeration – as murderous. I have never forgotten the controlled, deadly edge in her voice’. Inevitably, the sins of the mothers rebound on the daughters, and when Beatrix, desperate to leave home, falls pregnant with an unwanted daughter to a man she doesn’t love, history doesn’t exactly repeat itself so much as compound its errors.
Beatrix’s daughter, Thea, comes to hold a special place in Rosamund’s affections when Beatrix turns up at her college lodgings one day, small child in tow, and asks Rosamund to babysit for a couple of weeks while she chases yet another man to Canada. Rosamund has at that time embarked on the greatest love of her life – with another student, Rebecca – and the timing is far from fortuitous. Initially Rebecca is completely against the idea, but in a twist of great cunning from Coe, little Thea turns out to be the project that keeps the couple together. This is just as well, as Beatrix doesn’t come home for two years, but when she does, she whisks her daughter away and from then on her relationship to Rosamund, once so close, becomes dangerously ambiguous. Beatrix is a terrible mother to Thea, but by Rosamund’s account, she is not prepared to let anyone else step in to give her daughter the stable love and affection that she needs. I won’t give away any more of the story, as watching this tale unfold until it reaches its shocking conclusion is one of its great pleasures. But it’s necessary to come this far to show how Rosamund’s narrative is not innocent. She recounts events as if she is the objective observer, an independent witness, marginalized by her sexual preferences and her spinster status, but the unfulfilled wish she clearly has for a daughter of her own, her need to give love, is not without its own excessive and misplaced dimension. Towards the end of the story we begin to wonder about Rosamund’s own involvement in this tangled tale of love between women in its many forms, how much her own abandonment by her parents in the war has its part to play in her desire to rescue and nurture deserted daughters.
This is a clever novel that presents the reader with an intriguingly patterned narrative; it has a vague supernatural edge that Coe doesn’t really develop, but which he leaves hovering in the background, as another variation on the question of omens and portents and signs, and whether we are ever in the position to capitalize on the meaning they seem to offer. Stories in families repeat, not least the story of mothering that is handed down from mother to daughter in the most visceral of ways. Yet for all that we know this, there is little that can be done about it, Coe suggests, to reverse the damage done by a poor maternal inheritance, because the position of the mother is so isolated and so powerful. And this is a novel where fathers don’t get a look in. If a daughter’s relationship to her mother is wrong, Coe suggests, then it stands to affect every relationship she has. It just goes to show what a good novelist Jonathan Coe is, that he can delve into the world of women’s relationship and produce not just a convincing narrative, but a crackingly good story that lingers in the mind long afterwards. This isn’t a perfect book – the structure of the frame narrative never quite fulfils its potential, and there are details which don’t quite fit, but it’s a very good book, and well worth the few hours it takes to read it.