The Rain Before It Falls is the story of two cousins, linked by a blood-sister pact made in childhood, and whose lives are laced with tragedy and pain, spanning over three generations. As the reader will have already understood, despite the fact that Jonathan Coe is the author, the tone of this novel is very different, there is none of the humor found in previous ones.

After her aunt Rosamond has died, Gill, a middle-aged woman with two grown-up daughters, spends time in her house in order to tidy up. In a cupboard, she finds a set of tapes recorded by Rosamond and a letter to herself, inside one of the boxes, instructing her to send all the tapes to Imogen, a young blind girl, remotely related to Rosamond, and that Gill remembers meeting once years ago. After days of searching, without result, for Imogen, Gill decides to listen to the tapes herself, and discovers a very sad tale unfolded by the voice of Rosamond.

Rosamond talks to Imogen and tells the story of the bind between herself and Beatrix, her cousin, when she was sent to live with her aunt, uncle and cousins in Shropshire, during World War 2. She explains how she came to be under the thumb of her manipulative and selfish cousin Beatrix, three years her senior, who was herself ignored by her brothers and father and unloved by her mother, who preferred her sons and her dogs to her. Later on, when Rosamond is a student living in London with the love of her life, another young woman named Rebecca, Beatrix comes to remind her of their bind and asks a favor that will change the course of Rosamond’s life…

The originality of the narration is that Rosamond unfolds the story by describing twenty photographs, which sum up, in her opinion, the story of her life where it is connected with Imogen’s origins. As well as serving as frames, so that Rosamond is not tempted to digress too much, the pictures are supposed to enable the blind woman to see: Rosamond wants to "try to describe whatever [she] sees in the photographs", she wants Imogen to have intrinsic knowledge of what her eyes could never see, and make her understand the tragic circumstances that led to her existence…

The story told is a circle of abuse and pain, repeated from one generation to the next, like a curse thrown upon a family. Coe’s view is particularly grim, since the ending offers no redemption, and this is maybe what is saddest about the novel: if there is a pattern, as there seems to be, it is not one we are meant to understand, just one we are meant to sense, but which meaning escapes us. By introducing the character of Gill, a loving mother, unconnected to the story, and tied to it only in her capacity as her aunt’s executor, Coe shows that Gill, even if she is empathic to the point of feeling the "supernatural" sometimes, is too much taken in her own life and worries, in the here and now, and with her own family, to become obsessed with a pattern that only concerns her peripherally…

A rather short and unsettling novel, a bit reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, beautifully written, but that denies us closure, and in such a sad novel, I felt closure was needed. Very good, but grim, very grim, and not as impressive as the other novel I read by Coe (The excellent House of Sleep)…

Rating: 3,5/5