Here’s some advice for anyone starting a job as literary editor for a Catholic online journal: For your first book review, avoid novels whose central character is an atheist lesbian who fights to adopt a child and who eventually commits suicide.
Here’s some advice for anyone starting a job as literary editor for a Catholic online journal: For your first book review, avoid novels whose central character is an atheist lesbian who fights to adopt a child and who eventually commits suicide. Not that these elements make a novel bad, of course, but you may have to do some fancy dancing to warn readers who expect you to review a novel that presents Catholic ideas and beliefs.
If you choose to ignore that advice, at least get the necessary caveats out of the way early. And be sure that the novel is actually good, with interesting characters, vivid settings, evocative language, and a compelling plot, like Jonathan Coe’s The Rain before It Falls.
Coe’s novel begins when Gill, a middle-aged mother of two, learns that her aunt Rosamond has died, and travels to Shropshire take care of her effects. There, Gill finds that her aunt has left behind a collection of taped recordings that she had dictated in her final days, along with a number of family photographs. Confirming the old saying that “the family that listens to mysterious recordings by dead relatives together stays together,” Gill and her daughters gather one evening to listen to Rosamond’s tapes. The bulk of the novel consists of Rosamond’s recorded biography, and particularly her relationship with her extended family.
As I said, this is a good novel, which naturally means that its families are dysfunctional. The root of its conflict is, simply put, bad parenting. Consecutive generations of mothers neglect and abuse their daughters, with disastrous consequences. Rosamond’s own aunt mistreats her daughter Beatrix, who then neglects her own daughter Thea, who — you guessed it — mistreats her own daughter Imogen. These tragic repetitions constitute the novel’s emotional core.
Rosamond tries to help the family as much as she can. She has particular sympathy for Imogen, who suffered a violent accident as a young girl, but whom Rosamond perceives as a fulfillment of the family’s destiny. As she tells her, “Everything that led up to you was wrong . . . But everything about you is right: you had to be born.”
As with most interesting first-person narrators, it’s not quite clear how reliable Rosamond really is. For example, when her cousin suspects that Rosamond is having an inappropriate relationship with her daughter, Rosamond’s protests make the reader believe there was some truth to her cousin’s suspicions after all. Moreover, her attempts to help her cousin’s family often come across as meddlesome, intrusive, or simply foolish. But Rosamond is smart enough to recognize many of her shortcomings, and her concern for her relatives makes her a generally likeable character. (As for her homosexuality, if you can handle Brideshead Revisited, you can handle this novel. Coe is clear but never graphic.)
This novel shares a number of traits with Coe’s previous works, from its exploration of family secrets, its setting in the Midlands of England, its emphases on music and the discovery of lost recordings, and even its iambic title (Coe’s other novels include The Dwarves of Death, A Touch of Love, The House of Sleep, and The Rotter’s Club). Coe has also dealt with issues of faith and its foundations. In The Rotter’s Club, one character based his belief in God on an occasion as a teenager when he prayed to avoid humiliation in front of his classmates; in that novel’s sequel, The Closed Circle, he recognizes the flimsiness of this foundation.
Coe makes a similar move at the end of The Rain before It Falls. From listening to Rosamond’s account of her life and learning more about Imogen, Gill discovers surprising parallels and connections between her own life and theirs. This remarkable number of coincidences leads her to conclude that “Nothing was random, after all. There was a pattern: a pattern to be found somewhere . . . .” Gill’s brief flirtation with something resembling order, though not explicitly a divine plan, corresponds to Rosamond’s eventual faith in an afterlife “after so many years — a whole lifetime — of not believing.”
But Gill’s faith dies suddenly, a victim to a phone call that interrupts her train of thought: “the pattern she had been searching for had gone. Worse than that — it had never existed. How could it? What she had been hoping for was a fragment, a dream, an impossible thing.”
With this abrupt conclusion, Coe deprives the reader of the deeper meaning that he had established only pages earlier. Rather than a statement about the metaphysical bonds that unite a family, the novel becomes, in the words of a great literary critic, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” Of course, a good novel doesn’t need a moral, and authors often complicate a theme or meaning that they introduce; but convincing the reader of this higher meaning and annihilating it with a few brief lines seems disingenuous. It’s as if Coe lost his own faith in the power of his art. And that’s a shame, because his art is powerful, and this is an otherwise commendable novel.