The Photo Album

Reviewed by Frances Taliaferro
Sunday, May 18, 2008


By Jonathan Coe

Knopf. 240 pp. $23.95

Jonathan Coe is a brilliant English novelist who isn't as well known here as he should be. If you've read his early work, you've discovered his manic inventiveness. The House of Sleep, like many another novel, plays with shifts of time and memory; its Coe-ishness is in the setting, a sort of mad-scientist institute for the study of sleep disorders. The Winshaw Legacy, a family chronicle, portrays a truly dreadful group of siblings. The general unpleasantness includes a brutally clever send-up of British agribusiness that reads like Upton Sinclair crossed with Mad magazine. A mordant political observer, Coe has written of the Thatcher and Blair years in The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle; these are novels of panoramic sympathy as well as rude energy and satiric bite.

The Rain Before It Falls is different from all its predecessors. In tone, it's neither ironic nor antic; in form, it's concentrated and controlled. Most of the novel is narrated from one point of view, which belongs to Rosamond, an elderly woman near the end of her life. She tells her story to a tape recorder, hoping that its eventual audience will be her much younger cousin Imogen: "What I want you to have, Imogen, above all, is a sense of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that made you." As she speaks, Rosamond describes a collection of family photographs. Imogen cannot see them herself because she is blind.

Many years ago, at the beginning of World War II, 8-year-old Rosamond was evacuated from Birmingham to safety with an aunt and uncle in Shropshire. There she and Beatrix, her older cousin, had a secret hideout in an abandoned caravan -- Americans would call it a trailer -- and there they pricked fingers and declared blood-sisterhood. Beatrix, neglected by her selfish, hot-tempered mother, was glad to make Rosamond her acolyte. When they were teenagers, the avid Beatrix got pregnant and "had to marry" the father of her child, Thea. Rosamond gradually assumed the role of maiden aunt.

Rosamond's adult life, as recorded for Imogen, is mundane and satisfying, with the exception of one great lost love. The dramatic interest of her story comes from her relationship with the feckless Beatrix and with Thea, the daughter Beatrix resents but will not allow Rosamond to mother. It's not surprising that as an adolescent, the neglected Thea acts with a sullen wildness that recalls her mother's needy, rebellious youth. Like Beatrix, Thea gives birth to a resented child -- Imogen, for whom the elderly Rosamond is telling this painful story.

This may not be the house of Atreus, but still there seems to be a tragic inevitability in the anger and ill-controlled violence that disfigure the women in each generation of this family. Patterns emerge: in the way mothers alternate "spasm[s] of maternal generosity" with "grievous bodily harm" to children; in the obsessive bestowal of love on the wrong object, whether it's a disagreeable poodle or an indifferent partner.

Halfway through the novel, this patterning is expressed in a breathtaking musical image. At a student concert, the flutist begins with two long notes and a simple phrase; then she clicks the electronic switch that causes the notes to "blossom and multiply. Chords began to form, and loops of sound were created . . . until the air seemed to be filled with a whole ensemble of flutes [in] uncanny concord . . . as if [the music] were somehow drifting into the church not just from some remote, unvisited place, but from the distant past."

This image of sound-memory applies just as well to family photographs, with their odd cross-generational resonances. Rosamond goes far beyond merely describing what people wore or the particular occasion of the snapshot. Her observations make the reader reflect on memory as mediated by photography: on the way a photograph can produce a phantom memory of something you may not actually have experienced; on the deceitfulness of the camera, for whom almost everybody smiles; on the poignancy of grief that the viewer, here in the present, knows is yet to come for the camera's unknowing subject, there in the past. When Rosamond muses on "the way the photograph has reduced [people] to an unnatural stillness, just when they are doing something as dynamic and joyful as ice-skating," she thinks of Pompeii. We might also think of Keats's Grecian urn, of "Silence and slow Time" captured in a two-dimensional image.

Coe won't allot more lyricism to a character than she can handle, and Rosamond remains the most prosaic member of her family. Yet there is beauty in her narrative, often in her descriptions of timeless landscapes, and there's a depth of human understanding. How interesting, then, that the force of Rosamond's own feelings, some of which she hardly acknowledges, sets the reader to wondering about her reliability as a narrator. But then, as Rosamond herself says, "family life is full of mystery," and a family history may raise as many questions as it answers. For the admiring reader, the question may be whether The Rain Before It Falls is a diversion for Jonathan Coe, or whether it quietly announces a new direction. ยท

Frances Taliaferro is a writer in New York.

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