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Book Review: The Rain Before it Falls

The Rain Before It Falls
By Jonathan Coe
Knopf, 2008.

When Bret Easton Ellis called Jonathan Coe “the most exciting young British novelist writing today,” he was either partaking of the mind-altering substances he himself has so extensively chronicled, or he was referring to some extracurricular activity of Coe’s, like juggling or knife-throwing. This must be so, because Coe’s novels couldn’t be exciting if you set them on fire and hurled them through the window of a nunnery.

Coe’s latest effort (for him and his readers, make no mistake), The Rain Before It Falls, is no exception. It purports to tell the multi-generational story of a family of plucky women, from the time of the London Blitz to the era of cell phones. Rosamund – who during the war was sent to the countryside to live with her cousin Beatrix – makes a tape-record of her life, and years later her niece Gill and Gill’s grown daughters listen to the tapes comment on them. Beatrix also has a daughter, Thea, who subsequently has a daughter of her own, Imogen, and … etc.

The result is a slim novel of almost unbelievably excruciating dullness. Detail piles on homely detail like some kind of toxic snowfall, and even the overwriting offers no accidental amusements:

I looked out of the window that morning, and for a moment, a brief moment, my heart soared and the terrible knowledge that had been crushing me for the last few hours – the knowledge that I’d been banished from my parents’ house, sent into an undeserved and inexplicable exile – was lifted from me. I turned to share this moment with my cousin Beatrix, who slept in the attic bedroom with me, but her bed was empty and the bedclothes disheveled. She was always an early riser, always downstairs before me. Such was her appetite for breakfast and, more than that, for life itself.

More than breakfast! The reader’s mind staggers.

The experience is exactly akin to being trapped in the musty parlor of an elderly relative while they recount every last thing that’s ever happened to them:

Christmas was always a problem, in those days. It is a difficult time for the single woman. Yes, Imogen, I was still alone, and still living in my bedsit in Wandsworth, although in other respects, life was starting to improve. I’d handed in my notice at the department store, taken courses in typing and shorthand, and found myself a job as a secretary to the director of a publishing house in Bedford Square. It was the beginning, did I but know it, of my career in publishing …

But unlike in real life, where such torment might be endured for the sake of a hoped-for inheritance, there’s no reward for suffering in this case. Readers are advised therefore to steer clear of the parlor.

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