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Monday, February 4, 2008

One to Look Out For

Putting aside for a couple of days the Beatrix Potter biography, I gave myself over to an advanced reader’s copy of a novel coming out from Knopf next month, THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS, by Jonathan Coe. I’d been discussing with a few friends recently a phenomenon one encounters when reading good fiction: as Marilyn put it, “You get to this point where you forget that the author’s just making it all up.” With the Coe novel, I had a more unusual experience early on, retaining awareness that what I was reading was “made up” but believing strongly in the characters nonetheless.

The book (set in England) begins in the third person but taking the perspective of a woman named Gill, married and mother of two grown daughters just launching out into life on their own. Gill’s Aunt Rosamond in Shropshire has just died, and Gill has been named executrix of the aunt’s estate. She, her brother, and someone named Imogen are the heirs. The challenge will be to find Imogen, someone the others only knew slightly, haven’t seen for ages and hardly remember.

Rosamond was listening to music on the day she died, “Songs from the Auvergne.” She had also been recording stories on cassette tapes for Imogen. When computer searches and newspaper ads fail to turn up Imogen, Gill and her daughters listen to the tapes, hoping for clues on how they might find the missing girl, and at this point the story turns to the first person, Rosamond speaking through the tapes from beyond the grave.

Coe’s device is simple, what he accomplishes with it complex. Rosamond has decided that she will tell her story by describing to Imogen, who is blind, a series of photographs. The first is one of her own, Rosamond’s, childhood house. It was taken near the time that children were being evacuated to the countryside to be safe from the German bombing during World War II, and when Rosamond herself is evacuated, soon afterward, she is sent to live at Warden Farm, with the family of Beatrix, grandmother of Imogen. Beatrix and Rosamond, in typical little-girl style, soon become “blood sisters.” Over the years and decades, this relationship becomes tangled and murky in many ways, but even at the beginning it is not straightforward: Beatrix is not loved by her mother (intent only on her sons and her dogs) and uses Rosamond to try to gain family attention. Rosamond is rather a yo-yo to Beatrix, pulled close when it suits, at other times dropped.

Some of the developments of plot and character are predictable. We are not surprised, for instance, at Rosamond’s emerging lesbianism, the early clues for Rosamond herself being shared on the tapes. Quite different the developing family history of Beatrix, her daughter Thea, and granddaughter Imogen. Legacies of love and lack of love chart this course, and there are many twists and turns, understandable in retrospect, unforeseeable ahead of time, the story shifting from Shropshire to London to Canada and back again.

I mention place settings because they are so vivid that the places are almost characters in themselves. Places are described first in each chapter, as Rosamond records facts for Imogen about a picture’s composition, setting, color, and the people in it. There are twenty pictures in all. Rosamond has chosen them (from hundreds available) in order to present Imogen’s history to the girl in some manageable, chronological order, and in reading the visual descriptions along with all the associations and history called up by each image, the reader lives the story in all five senses.

It works. The device works. Along with Gill, we are transported back in time, living Rosamond’s life as Imogen’s grandmother and mother, then Imogen herself, are woven through it. At the end we share Gill’s desire to see a meaningful pattern in it all.

This is a book worth reading. I don’t want to give away the story by saying more.

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