Jonathan Coe is a wonderful writer and he’s a wonderful human being. His books offer many reasons to love his writing style, with well crafted characters satirising Britain, politics and revealing countless truths about who we are. However, they do more than that. Jonathan Coe normalises homosexuality with characters that just happen to be gay. It is this that makes him a wonderful person. His lesbians are not evil plot devices, stereotypes in dungarees, or going through identity crisis coming-of-age phases.
The main protagonist’s sexuality is casually mentioned with a comment about her ‘longtime companion’ within the first 10 pages and it is not a point of contention for any of the characters in the present day. We discover later that this character Rosamond has of course experienced lesbophobia like all of us but it has not prevented her from living a full and happy life with her long-term partner Ruth and before that with an ex-girlfriend Rebecca.
Rosamond’s life is movingly revealed as she describes a series of 20 photographs via a tape recording to be left after her death to a blind relative, the missing Imogen. The knowledge that the intended recipient of the tapes is blind allows Coe to focus on the description of these photographs that span from the 1940s to the present day. The novel is incredibly tactile and audible – there is a sense that you can feel the photographs in this old woman’s hands and hear the whirring of the old cassette recorder. The use of the cassette tapes and at one point a record player adds to this construction of a living room that you can see and feel – one in which the occupant has relied on the same appliances that have survived the last few decades and will remain reliable until the end of her life. There is a real skill in Coe’s writing that he can create several layers of memory and storytelling while focusing on predominantly only one woman’s life.
The novel begins with Rosamond’s niece, Gill, learning of Rosamond’s death and the novel is interspersed with scenes from the life of Gill’s immediate family. There is the sense of space in which Rosamond is telling her life story as she describes these photographs and within that there are the additional spaces created by those descriptions and the memories they reveal. This creates an incredibly rich narrative setting which is surprising considering much of the novel takes place in an old woman’s home while she talks to a cassette recorder. The sense of sound is very important to this novel and at one point Rosamund plays a piece of music that is vey important to her. Coe has also released a ‘Kindle Single’ story called Pentatonic that also focuses on music to tell a different story from the perspective of the character David, Gill’s husband who plays a very small part in this novel, which further adds to the richness of this story. I would be interested to hear The Rain Before it Falls in audiobook format to see if adds another dimension to the sensory qualities the novel has.
Rosamond’s narrative is one of growing up, falling in love, moving in, moving out, finding a stable career she loved, falling in love again and living happily ever after in an idyllic rural community in England. It’s the kind of heteronormative finding true love story that could be found anywhere. It would be so easy for this character to be heterosexual. Yet Coe has her growing up gay in the 1940s, falling in love with a woman, hiding their love from landlords and parents, not having children or familial acceptance from their whole family and gradually finding that society slowly becomes more accepting around them. Rosamond’s life is not painted as a sob-story, a cautionary tale or an unrealistic glorified tale of homosexuality. Instead it is an incredibly honest portrayal of being a lesbian with all of the joy and the despair that comes with it. There is the incredible rush of feeling sexual attraction to a woman for the first time and the heartbreak of taking care of the daughter of a cousin when her mother leaves for two years only for that familial bond to be suddenly broken and no further opportunities for children to offer themselves.
The Rain Before it Falls is a beautiful story of a life lived and one that just happened to be lived by a lesbian. For showing his readers that lesbians are just like everyone else I would like to thank Jonathan Coe.