Jonathan Coe's new novel, The Rain Before It Falls, abandons the comic political satire of his recent work in favour of a melancholy family tale about three generations of women scarred by loveless childhoods. The story is narrated by elderly and ailing Rosamond through a series of photographs that she is describing in detail to a blind girl, Imogen. The photographs reveal the story of Rosamond's childhood friendship with an unhappy little girl, Beatrix, and of her later relationship with Beatrix's daughter Thea, during Thea's childhood and then her adult years.
"I don't think you really understand what you're writing when you're writing it," Coe says, "or, if you do, then you're probably doing it wrong. It's good not to understand it completely. I have a feeling about my other books as if, in a way, I've understood them too well while I was writing them. They were very schematic and preplanned. With this one I forced myself to let go of all of that and take a bit more of a step into the dark.
"All I'm doing in this book is playing up aspects of my work which have been there in my earlier books but have maybe been buried under the comedy, social commentary and all the other things that I'm associated with doing. There's a strong vein of melancholy running through all my novels: What a Carve Up! has it in the relationship between Michael and his mother; The House of Sleep has it in the central love relationship. The Rotters' Club was awarded the Bollinger prize for comic fiction and I had to be photographed holding a pig and all that kind of thing, but at the same time it's about a girl whose boyfriend gets his head blown off by an IRA bomb. So there have always been very dark undercurrents in what I do. This time I've just brought them to the surface.
"There wasn't a conscious decision not to write about any men in this novel, although there are very few men in it. It was always going to be about mothers and daughters—a subject that really interests me. It's the first novel that I've conceived completely since having children. I had my first daughter in 1997, which is when I started work on The Rotters' Club, but I'd been thinking about that novel for a few years before that. The next seven or eight years of my writing life were taken up with The Rotters' Club and the sequel, but this has been germinating all along. A lot of it has grown out of my own relationship with my daughters [Matilda, aged nine, and Madeline, six] and seeing how they relate to their mother, and my friends' children and their relationships with their parents.
"One thing the book is about in a veiled, oblique sort of way, is what 'good parenting' is. I see around me signs of parents not neglecting their children necessarily, not abusing them, but not connecting with them strongly enough. I find that very depressing because take that too far and children grow up damaged. I'm just not sure that we understand in the West what a 100% commitment children are—it doesn't mean that you have to throw the rest of your life out of the window, but it does mean that it takes second place for the next 15 or 20 years. And a lot of parents don't seem to be prepared to take that on board. Among other things, this book is a fable about what happens when a child is neglected, not wanted and not loved by her mother; what happens to two generations of women who suffer from that. I think that does leave permanent damage.
"My daughters love looking at family photographs and hearing stories about me and their mother when we were little. A lot of the family history I've passed on to them has been imparted in that context—we've been looking at photographs together and chatted about them. I realised that that could be a narrative device for writing a novel with a family history in it. Knowing that the person the narrative was going to be addressed to was blind, I thought you would describe pictures in a very different way—in much more detail, much more precisely. I was getting a bit pissed off as well that people kept telling me there was no visual description in my books and that I never said what people were wearing or what they looked like. I thought: 'I'll do an entire novel where that's spelled out, page after page.'
"I also wanted to do something which I did in my first novel, The Accidental Woman: to cover a relatively long time in quite a short novel. It starts in 1941 and goes up to 2006, so that's 65 years in 250 pages. I like that sense of time really whizzing past. You flip over the page and whoops, you're 10 years ahead. That's a continuation of what I was doing in The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle: the idea that you leave characters behind at 18 and suddenly, wham, they're in their early 40s. That always intrigues me when you're looking at photographs and you see someone when they're 20 and again when they're 40 and they're almost unrecognisable.
"I remember pitching up at Cambridge as a student in 1980 and the Virago Modern Classics were on display in the bookshops. I wanted to buy one because they looked so nice, and then I thought: 'These are modern classics and I literally haven't heard of any of these writers.' So I started, and fell in love with many of those authors, particularly Rosamond Lehmann to whom this book is a homage in many ways. That's why the narrator is called Rosamond, and why her sister-in-blood is called Beatrix—that was Rosamond Lehmann's sister's name. You still get people turning their noses up a bit at her, but if you read a book like The Echoing Grove, not only is it structurally just an amazing piece of work, incredibly complex and oblique and original, but the writing is absolutely beautiful. The only reason a novelist as good as that can be neglected as far as I can see is that there is some snobbery around the subject matter. She's not writing about politics or ideas, she's writing about mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, romantic relationships and so on. But she's one of the major 20th century novelists as far as I'm concerned."
The Rain Before It Falls (Viking, 6th September, h/b, £17.99, 9780670917280)
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