Leslie Priest/Associated Press
Readers expecting a new installment in Jonathan Coe’s ambitious sequence of novels launched with The Rotters’ Club in 2003 will likely be taken aback by The Rain Before It Falls. The Rotters’ Club and its 2005 sequel, The Closed Circle, formed a kind of collective Bildungsroman for Coe’s generation of late-born British boomers, pitching personal dramas, compromises and disappointments against a capacious backdrop of capital-h history–IRA bombings, Labour defeats, work stoppages, internationally financed factory takeovers and the triumphs of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Those works, like Coe’s exuberant breakthrough novel, What a Carve Up! (released in the United States as The Winshaw Legacy), also made prodigious use of the pop-cultural backdrop to these political transformations–so that, for example, the collapse of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1970 or the resurgence of IRA terrorism tracks seamlessly alongside the spread of shitty, developmentally arrested prog rock.
Unlike other writers working the same kind of material while afflicted with an overbroad weakness for satire–such as the ever-lamentable Jay McInerney–Coe never lets his fictional visions descend into sniping for sniping’s sake: mining the stuff of recent history for unseemly acts of self-advertisement isn’t Coe’s game. Rather, for all his unsparing wit, he takes great pains to portray his characters as tragically unable to move their lives forward, pinioned as they are by the absurd superstitions of British class and cultural life. The world of The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle is one where working-class kids have few options for voicing their core dissatisfactions with life save to stage destructive sexual psychodramas–or, worse, to perform in bands with names like Gandalf’s Staff.
But none of that charged political material occupies the stage in The Rain Before It Falls, a deceptively quiet study of family life across four generations. To be sure, the London Blitz is a prime mover of the novel’s plot–putting its chief narrator, a dying woman named Rosamond, in the company of her cousin Beatrix as she repatriates from the outskirts of Birmingham to Shropshire, where she takes up with Beatrix’s farm-owning family in order to escape German bombing attacks. (Coe, by the way, has clearly cribbed this plot point from the life of B.S. Johnson, the great postwar experimental novelist and childhood Blitz evacuee, who was the subject of Coe’s excellent biography Like a Fiery Elephant.) But Rosamond, by her own admission, has throughout her life been “capable of, but not interested in, understanding the events that were unfolding around me in the wider world.” She’s far more apt to find meaning in a change of weather than in a change of government and, in lieu of bleak ruminations on Labour’s collapse, to detect “moral coarseness” in the unthinking slights of a husband toward a wife or–most of all–in the unbidden cruelties mothers can visit on their daughters.