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The Counter-Family

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Leslie Priest/Associated PressWartime life in London, August 1940

About the Author

Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehmann, an editor at The Baffler and Bookforum, is at work on a book about American religion and the culture of...

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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.

For The Rain Before It Falls is also, quite pointedly, a "women's novel"--putting it in different company from the main plot movers in the past two Coe outings: adulterous political leaders, violent union thugs, cynical journalists--all men heaving their Big Political Preoccupations quite loudly (if also futilely) into History's onrushing tide. Last fall, when the novel was published in Britain, Coe wrote in the Guardian that it was "intended (among other things) as an hommage" to the Virago Modern Classics roster of Modernist women's literature: books that adumbrated the multiple confinements--psychological, political and economic--women experienced in the separate domestic sphere of (mainly) well-born British life. Reviewing the achievements of the first Virago writer he encountered--Dorothy Richardson, author of Pilgrimage, a thirteen-volume sequence about women coming of age with the new twentieth century--Coe wrote that Richardson adopted a deliberately elliptical narrative style, one that didn't move in conventional linear chronology but rather sideways and by accretion, an account of life "in which every incident is just a small variation on every other incident."

So it is in The Rain Before It Falls, the chronicle of an outsider looking in on the destructive course of a close relation's life, and the yet more fatal family legacies arising from the core resentments that cousin Beatrix carries out of her childhood. It's also the revelation of a submerged family history--the last testament of Rosamond to a girl named Imogen, who has been unaware that she's Beatrix's grandchild, thanks to a crushing act of abuse in Imogen's early childhood at the hands of her mother (Beatrix's daughter Thea) that has exiled her into a foster family's orbit.

All this material arises, fittingly enough, from a classic sort of domestic errand: after Rosamond dies in the wake of a long coronary illness, her middle-aged niece Gill is appointed executor of the estate. Doing battle with the clutter of Rosamond's rural Shropshire home, she discovers a stack of recently recorded cassette tapes placed close to the chair where Rosamond's doctor found her dead. Also close by is a note in Rosamond's hand, addressed to Gill: "These are for Imogen." But Gill recalls the girl only from a single encounter, when Imogen was 8 or 9, and a mysterious guest at Rosamond's fiftieth birthday party; repeated efforts to locate her come up empty, and at length, following the instructions in Rosamond's will, Gill resolves to listen to the tapes herself--in the company of her two grown daughters, on a visit to see one of them perform a flute recital at a London church.

Imogen is blind, which accounts for the taping of Rosamond's testament, as well as the somewhat perverse framing device the old woman adopts for her reminiscences: descriptions of twenty photographs of family interest, since Imogen has been denied any visual record "of where you come from, and of the forces that made you," as Rosamond explains. This device, not incidentally, also allows Coe to carry on the traditional novelist's business of providing detailed descriptions of landscapes, architecture and the physical features of main characters without it seeming quite so artificial in a long monologue transcript.

Like most seemingly measured accounts of a family's past, Rosamond's testimonial gradually widens into the stuff of roiling pathology--but the effect of the unstinting, ur-British tidiness of Rosamond's voice (even in a casually recorded setting with occasional breaks for alcoholic refreshment) is that she imparts an unnerving texture of the everyday to actions and events that are anything but. Occasionally, Rosamond pauses to note this odd juxtaposition of high melodrama and recitations of mainly domestic tableaux: "Does it help you, Imogen, to understand any of this, if I describe so minutely the things that you will never be able to see? Does it help you to understand why your grandmother walked out on your grandfather in the autumn of 1949, and took your infant mother along with her, and dragged her round Ireland in a gipsy caravan for more than three years?"

Lord knows. But for Coe's readers, these casual jolts of melodrama help prevent Rosamond's narrative--which is, after all, the saga of four generations of women testing the way that their lives have been circumscribed in small rural settings--from straying into the ready-made Oprah niche of didactic uplift. It also helps that Rosamond is by no means a standard-issue lovable eccentric from similar stories of recovery and pluck such as Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and Ann-Marie Macdonald's Fall on Your Knees. She is, rather, possessed of an arch, fatalistic and--rare for a Coe character--not especially humorous voice. Summoning up the end of Beatrix's three-year gypsy affair, for example, Rosamond notes that her paramour had been "under the happy impression that Beatrix was hard at work, waiting tables in the Castle Hotel, while in fact she had been out carousing and canoodling with this Canadian businessman whom she had met on her second night there. When this discrepancy came to light," she notes briskly, "there was--as you might suppose--an almighty row, and that was that." You can almost picture her clapping her hands in uptending motions, the high-British gesture of a messy or unpleasant task discharged.

But if Rosamond can seem inattentive to (or, better yet, inconvenienced by) high romantic dramas, she's also a close observer of the arguably deeper, more resonant currents that inform them from within. As Beatrix remained in thrall to doomed, self-dramatizing romantic gestures, Rosamond sums up her increasingly unstable cousin thus: "Half of the time she behaved with a kind of desperate levity and high-spiritedness, but this could easily switch, without warning, into savagery."

Much of that savagery gets trained on women close at hand, in the great tradition of Virago fiction dissecting the ills of the domestic sphere. Beatrix is especially bent on tormenting Thea, the daughter from her first, virtual shotgun wedding. As Beatrix pursues some high-spirited romantic machinations overseas, she parks the not quite 5-year-old girl with Rosamond, whom she largely ignored during her three-year bohemian sabbatical from provincial Northern English life. Unbeknownst to both women, this careless action will furnish a fateful dividing line in their lives, with its aftereffects creating awful, unanticipated legacies across the generations.

For one thing, as she becomes Thea's guardian, Rosamond is also well into her own momentous (if less flamboyant) odyssey of self-discovery: after breaking off a college engagement, she sets up housekeeping in a cramped London flat with another woman, Rebecca, realizing at the height of Britain's postwar cult of domesticity that she's a lesbian. As the couple's stint as Thea's caretakers stretches from weeks into years, they're vouchsafed a most anomalous vision of an unstunted, restorative family life: coming to love Thea almost as their own daughter, they imagine providing her with the sort of abiding acceptance--and domestic stability--that Beatrix can never manage.

But as Rosamond's narration mercilessly reveals, that fugitive arrangement was indeed little more than a vision. In the scene that furnishes the book's title, the all-female family decamps to the Auvergne countryside in France on a holiday; as a storm threatens one blissful afternoon, Thea announces her childish preference for merely threatened rain. When Rosamond pedantically says that there's no such thing--that precipitation must, you know, precipitate--Thea proudly retorts, "Something can still make you happy, can't it, even if it isn't real?"

Not for long, as Thea's counter-family soon learns. Just as suddenly as Beatrix descended to dump Thea in the couple's laps, she returns--overseas romantic mission finally accomplished--to snatch her back into yet another dysfunctional family unit. The first casualty of that precipitate move is Rosamond's relationship with Rebecca, who can no longer imagine a life--a shared one with Rosamond, anyway--without Thea. Rosamond's life becomes for many years after that an achingly solitary affair. Via episodic encounters with both Beatrix and Thea--who becomes for Rosamond something of a talismanic figure, betokening life possibilities long foreclosed to her--the isolated cousin sees her childhood friend's most savage aspect. After one especially charged mother-daughter encounter--involving, of all things, a damaged summer blouse--Rosamond is moved to speak up on the victimized girl's behalf, only to have the deranged Beatrix turn on her in no less savage fashion: "I know you, Rosamond. I know what you are. Don't think that Thea has never told me: what you used to get up to, with that woman. When you were meant to be looking after her."

And that, as Rosamond might say, was that: the cousins remained in cursory contact for the remainder of Beatrix's life, but relations were cold and formal, even for British women of a certain background. Thea lives in a bitter state of exile from her mother and develops a self-protective profile of chilling emotional indifference, which Rosamond notes with characteristic precision: "I looked at her, searching, again, for signs of emotion--joy, affection, discomfort, any kind of feeling, in short--but I could see nothing. There was no light in her eyes, nothing behind them, no spirit animating her at all."

That's the maternal legacy that Thea bequeaths to Imogen, with truly calamitous results. But one is ultimately less struck by Imogen's misfortune than with the solitary course of Rosamond's later life. Often, she confesses, she finds herself grasping back at the never-repeatable domestic bliss of the surrogate family's French camping adventure: "If I felt an ache, a yearning to be in Thea's presence again, was that because, unselfishly, I wanted to help her, or because my own life was so empty and loveless?"

The answer comes later, resoundingly on the latter score, as Rosamond explains to Imogen the efforts of her and her later life partner--a warm but passionless painter named Ruth--to adopt the 3-year-old girl after the state had separated her from Thea. "The thought of having you, Imogen, joining us, living with us, coming to love and depend upon us (and how much you would depend on us, now that you had been so cruelly incapacitated)--it was almost too wonderful to contemplate.... We would give you everything your mother had never had. And in this way, perhaps, across the generations, the scales of justice might somehow be balanced."

It's to Coe's credit that he doesn't let his otherwise enormously sympathetic narrator shrink from voicing the way that a child's misfortune can become the occasion of something "almost too wonderful to contemplate." And it's also a singular achievement of The Rain Before It Falls that Coe can leave the bruising verdict behind such a wish unstated: that the dogmatic denial of family ties can be just as disfiguring as their dogmatic strictures. In this way, Rosamond brings to mind another aching, proper--though altogether more prickly--British exile from family life: Barbara Covett, the slyly vindictive antiheroine of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal.

Rosamond also brings to mind the esteemed roster of Virago writers Coe kept plainly in view as he wrote this book. She shares a first name with Rosamond Lehmann (no relation to your humble correspondent), a Virago author who stoked "a literary love affair that has lasted for more than two decades," Coe wrote in his Virago appreciation. As it happens, Lehmann's best-known work, The Ballad and the Source, concerns the "story of the relationship between a mother, her daughter and her granddaughters, in which betrayal, manipulation and emotional histrionics are shown to have a cumulatively destructive effect across the generations," Coe writes. Moreover, Rosamond Lehmann had a sister named Beatrix--best known as an actress featured on the BBC cult sci-fi series Dr. Who but who was also a published Virago author. Beatrix's icy, petulant mother is named Ivy--and Ivy Compton-Burnett, another Virago writer, specialized in novels largely made up of icy, petulant intrafamily dialogue. Coe even goes out of his way to put Rosamond and Beatrix on the set of a Shropshire film production of a 1950 film called Gone to Earth--a real-life project, directed by Michael Powell, based (yes) on a novel of the same name by Virago writer Mary Webb.

But the nicest bit of name-based wordplay in the novel concerns Rosamond's niece. One of Rosamond Lehmann's cruelest reviewers was The New Yorker's Brendan Gill, who as Coe notes, complained that a later Lehmann novel, The Echoing Grove, "was flawed because it attempted to blame women's troubles on men, when the real problem (apparently) was something called 'destiny'; but 'women, especially women writers,' he said, 'have no use for destiny; they wouldn't compose a Hamlet if they could.'"

One of the central themes of Rosamond's narration, however, is an affirmation of destiny. In what turns out to be very nearly her dying words, she recalls the lakeside idyll in France, and tells Imogen: "It was all leading, I realize now, to the day by the lake--that was the culmination.... Everything after that was wrong. When Beatrix came back, to take Thea away, that was when the world tilted, went out of shape." Even so, she has told Imogen that the wrongness of all these years of family torture also contains a saving--if contradictory--truth:

Everything I know about Beatrix and her family, from my first encounter with them at Warden Farm in 1941, through her bad marriages and her accident and her neglect and mistreatment of Thea, and then the way your mother grew up feeling unwanted and worthless and incapable of emotion, and all of these things, all of these things that were so wrong, all these unsuitable relationships and bad choices.... Yes, it was true, none of them should ever have happened, they were all terrible, terrible mistakes, and yet look what they led to. They led to you, Imogen!... There is such a rightness about you. The notion of your not existing, never having been born, seems so palpably wrong to me, so monstrous and unnatural.

Coe is too good a novelist to let this be the final word on Imogen, who has her own chastening rendezvous with destiny: a shocking, brutal episode that--of course--nearly mirrors a formative trauma of her mother's childhood. And that makes the literary background to the taut, unsparing vision of The Rain Before It Falls just that--background. Even so, it is surely no accident that Coe constructs its action so that a character named Rosamond is patiently, emotionally and (please note, Hamlet fans) dramatically instructing a character named Gill in the true workings of destiny. It's also no small consolation, amid the bleak portraits of a family's lethally arrested emotional life, to savor some long-overdue gender-themed literary payback.

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