The Rain Before It Falls

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.

20 thoughts on “The Rain Before It Falls

  1. I’m glad to hear this is such a good read, as I’ve been interested in reading Coe for a while — I just haven’t yet gotten around to it yet (which is the case with so, so many books!). I’ve been curious about Coe ever since I read his article praising the Virago books so highly — he seemed like someone who could get gender issues right. I’m glad that’s the case here.

  2. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found I can have no more than a half of a glass of wine, or I’m really in for it the next day. I am, however, able to tolerate a little in my risotto, and find it really helps out the risotto’s flavor, so I’m sorry that put you under! I love the title of Coe’s book, and wow, from your description, that’s a powerful story. I’m always intrigued by novels about difficult mother-daughter relationships, so this will go directly onto my list. Thanks!

  3. Hope you are feeling better today, nothing better than a quiet day and a good book to soothe. I’ve been meaning to read Jonathan Coe for quite some time – is this the first of his you’ve read? If not, would you recommend starting with a different one?

  4. I love how your son summed up your situation! I can hear him snickering. Noentheless, even with a hangover you managed some good reading and a well done review. That’s impressive🙂

  5. And I thought I was doing well by limiting my imbibing to Wednesday and Sunday. I tried to give it up completely for Lent, but decided I’d give up something like skydiving instead.

  6. So sorry about the risotto-induced “hangover”, but not when it produces a review like this! The book had me at its title, but your comments have put it right on the list. Thank you–and I hope you feel better. Truly.

  7. I am putting this book on my list.

    Sorry about the hangover. Intolerances to substances should not be ignored. But is it really the alcohol? It seems like all the alcohol would have boiled off during the making of the risotto. If, however, it is an intolerance to sulfites, which are ubiquitous in most liquor including wine, they would have stayed in the risotto and affected you. I would be looking for a source of organic, unsulfited wine just to see if it is really alcohol. I have a friend that is allergic to alcohol, she never partakes of it at all. Our circle of friends understands her issues. When I was in my party pooper non-drinking mode, at parties I would get myself a glass with tonic and a squeeze of lime. Stand around with that, it looks like a mixed drink and everyone is pretty much fooled. No more hassles, no more snarky comments.

  8. Sorry to hear about the risotto–or at least the wine in the risotto! It’s hard when you have to watch your diet so carefully–but it’s amazing how food can alter our bodies/moods so easily. Very glad to hear about the Coe book, though, as it’s on my pile as well! Like Dorothy his name has stuck in my mind since that article on Virago books, and I snapped this one up as soon as it came out in paper. Now just to fit it in…(always the problem, eh).

  9. Lilian – I’d love to know what you think if you read it.

    Squirrel – Lol! Is there nothing I wouldn’t do for my art? (Answer: probably not)

    Dorothy – I’ve read several of his books now and always been impressed by him. He’s an extremely accessible writer and yet he always has emotional depth to what he does. Really, I’m a fan and I’d love to know what you think of him.

    Gentle Reader – I thought of you while writing this and hoped you might see the review and be tempted. It did read like something you would like (as far as I know your preferences). You’re right that wine does add something to a risotto – boo hoo! I won’t do that again in a hurry. It’s nice to know that other people find their tolerance lowers, too; I definitely think pregnancy altered my body in many ways, long before CFS kicked in.

    Verbivore – thank you, you’re very kind! Umm, I would probably start with Coe’s The Rotter’s Club, which is about a bunch of school friends and follows their lives as they grow older. But if you can’t get that, then this is also a good initial read. I’d love to know what you think of him if you do read his novels.

    Stefanie – my son does make me laugh, so. The hangover was bad. But you know me, ever faithful to the cause of literature and blogging!🙂

    Grad – you should do whatever makes you happy, I think!

    ds – what a sweetie you are! I am feeling better, thank you, and I would love to know what you make of this book if you get hold of it. I really must get your blog onto my blogroll – I am slow at these housekeeping tasks sometimes – and unnecessary hangovers don’t help!🙂

    Healingmagichands – yes, I thought that the alcohol ought to have steamed off, but I figured I might have misunderstood my chemistry. My mother is very allergic to sulphites, so it is quite possible that they are to blame. You are so right to get yourself a lookalike drink at parties, now that is a smart move. Some people are fine with abstinence, but there are quite a lot, alas, who think you are making some sort of moral stance. Not true! But not the kind of thing that you can convince people about.

    Danielle – it’s so true – you wouldn’t believe what a small measure of something can do to you unless, or until, it happens. I would love to know what you make of the Coe book. It’s a lovely quick read, very easy. But I feel just the same – I have about 20 books that are absolute must-reads on my shelves and I feel like I don’t quite know where to begin! Some dilemmas are nicer than others, though.😉

  10. I’m sorry for the suffering that put you to bed, but hey, if you got a good read out of it, it wasn’t all bad.

    Incidentally, it’s probably not the alcohol, but the sulfites that affect you. You also probably already know that.🙂 I’ve never been drunk, but I’ve had sulfite hangovers several times, and they’re nasty as all hell. I can drink things like gin or vodka with no problem, but wine, esp. oaky reds, give me some long moments.

  11. I really enjoyed The Rain Before It Falls for several reasons. It’s easy to read, has a multi-generational story and I love the way he winds the narrative around those 20 pictures. Makes me want to pick out 20 pictures from our family albums and do a similar thing. Could be a good blog exercise in that (a la Emily’s posts a while back).

  12. What an interesting book – I shall look for it at the library this afternoon.
    I hope you have recovered from your sulfite/wine experience. I have an issue with sulfites, too. The risotto sounds yummy, however! I think I have been inspired for dinner tonight.

  13. David – I’m very happy to have the sulfite possibility confirmed. I didn’t feel particularly well the day after the hangover, so whatever it was certainly packed a punch. I like the phrase ‘long moments’ too – I felt that when I read it! And yes, you’re right. The only consolation from such times is that I can get some very pleasant reading done as it’s quite obvious nothing more useful is going to happen!🙂

    Pete – What a good idea to use it a series of photos as an impetus to blogging! Wow – you could do family portraits, or a developing story, or just compare adult and child perspectives. Oh I really hope you do that some day. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Coe! It was very emotionally insightful, wasn’t it?

    Peter – reading is the best therapy I know, for just about anything. I’m reading about three new things at the moment and waiting for the magic to take hold…

    Qugrainne – I’d love to know what you think of the book if you read it. I am feeling better now, thank you, and I love risotto. My favourite uses chicken, peas, lemon and mint, but I haven’t had one yet that I didn’t like.🙂

  14. Never to be able to DRINK alcohol again, I might be able to handle, but never being able to cook with it again? Oh dear! Sorry to hear you ended up with a hangover from that (I mean, after all, eating a delicious risotto is far preferably to drinking some ghastly, sickeningly-sweet glass of wine someone has offered you that you’re too polite to dump in the sink). Oh, and yet another book for the goodreads TBR shelf (just after I was patting myself on the back for having recently cleared two books off it).

  15. Dear LL – I found your comments on alcohol, sugar and cavffeine as interesting/useful/important as your excellent book review. Thanks!

  16. Emily – isn’t it a pain? I don’t mind not drinking at all, really. But when it messes with my risotto, that’s another level altogether.😉 I’ll warn you in advance – I’ve read some good books lately, so you might want to close your eyes for the next couple of posts!

    Oh – you are very welcome! Chronic fatigue has made me very interested in nutrition. It’s amazing how much difference it makes.

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