Someone very kindly recommended The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe to me by e mail and I can't for the life of me remember who, but a big thank you. I added it to an Amazon order for free postage and as soon as it came out of the box last week I just knew I wanted to read it NOW.
Well by the cover of course.
I've been upbraided elsewhere online recently over my perceived shortcomings in judging Suite Francaise by its cover, which for me felt false and contrived and failed completely in any message it needed to telegraph to me about the book. It still does and I still haven't read that book.I will eventually.
But here's a cover which just reeled me in and I hope to goodness it stays in place for the paperback, because the monochrome depths and significance of that photograph worthily sell the book both before and after you've read it. It's a masterstroke of brilliant, interpretational graphic design which, if as a reader you can invest with some visual relevance to the whole, maximises the reading experience from memorable to forever memorable.
I'll gush a bit more about that in a minute.
For reasons unknown I've allowed the Jonathan Coe bandwagon to pass me by over the years, and to do that with any popular author always leaves me with plenty of unanswered questions, not least, are they really as good as everyone says they are?
Time to find out and The Rain Before It Falls seemed like a good place to start, though I hear this one is unlike anything he may have written before, so perhaps not?
Rosamond, the ageing spinster found dead in her armchair with a tape recorder and a pile of family photographs near by, a record still going round on the turntable and clearly we are in for a gradual revealing of the family history mediated through Rosamond's eyes and voice. The eyes are important because she is doing it all for the benefit of Imogen, a distant relative who has been blind since her childhood.
So the scene is set for a story told from beyond the grave, there's probably a proper literary name for that, a Bildungsroman a morte or something.
Using twenty photos as prompts Rosamond proceeds and using the "I shall tell you that...but first I must tell you this" device to great effect, Jonathan Coe builds up a subtle and very clever state of suspense and anxiety about the life and times of this family.
Truth be told it's a book pervaded by sadness.
Even the potentially happy moments are blighted by sadness, and the gradual exposure of a family with all its defects makes for glimpses of selfishness, of love misplaced or withheld, of prejudice and assumptions as the sins of the fathers, but in this case the sins of the mothers too, all revisit and take their toll on the various children.
This is all as much about letting go of that history and starting over if such a thing were possible and in many ways Jonathan Coe permits that through Rosamond's steady and seemingly reliable narrative voice as she interprets the reality behind the images for the as yet untraced and unsighted Imogen.
You do have to work through some harrowing tragedy to reach the redemption of sorts, but Rosamund completes her task, and thereby closure, with great courage.
So what about the cover?
Well gush and more gush because to me it's pure genius.The picture has real resonance with events in the book for a start, but it does much more than that. Amongst other things this book is about the "deceit of the photograph", in a what- lies- beneath- the- surface sort of way. A moment captured in a still that may or may not tell the whole truth. Plenty of analogies to be made about events frozen in time.
But once I'd turned the final page I sat and reflected for ages on what I'd just read and as I stared at the cover, both front and back, my thoughts about the book crystallized.
Call that dog Fate and the ice Life and you realise that you often don't have a great deal of control over what life may throw at you.The trick is all about keeping your balance and changing your centre of gravity appropriately when the going gets slippery. Everyone around you might be wobbling and you might not execute a perfect triple salchow, but at least you stand a chance of staying on your feet.
I loved this book and now I'm intrigued and I will be reading much more of Jonathan Coe in the future.
On the strength of this one, yes, he really is as good as everyone says he is and I might just have to frame this cover.