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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Rain before it Falls

Jonathan Coe

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To purchase The Rain before it Falls

Title: The Rain before it Falls
Author: Jonathan Coe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 240 pages
Availability: The Rain before it Falls - US
The Rain before it Falls - UK
The Rain before it Falls - Canada
The Rain before it Falls - India
La pluie, avant qu'elle tombe - France
Der Regen, bevor er fällt - Deutschland
La pioggia prima che cada - Italia
La lluvia antes de caer - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-written, but story and presentation feel slightly off

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/9/2007 Patrick Ness
The Independent . 14/9/2007 Carol Birch
Independent on Sunday A+ 28/10/2007 Ed Wood
London Rev. of Books . 18/10/2007 Daniel Soar
The LA Times . 6/4/2008 Ella Taylor
The Nation . 26/5/2008 Chris Lehmann
New Statesman . 20/9/2007 Toby Lichtig
The NY Sun A 12/3//2008 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. D 13/4/2008 Erica Wagner
The Observer . 16/9/2007 Adam Mars-Jones
The Spectator . 19/9/2007 Charlotte Moore
Sunday Times . 9/9/2007 Sophie Harrison
The Telegraph A 1/9/2007 Ian Sansom
The Telegraph . 13/9/2007 David Robson
The Times A 6/10/2007 Kate Saunders
TLS . 21/9/2007 Paul Quinn
The Village Voice . 4/3/2008 Alexis Soloski
The Washington Post . 18/5/2008 Frances Taliaferro

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but several very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) brief, sad, often very moving story of mothers and daughters, of pain passed on through generations, and of deep and abiding loneliness. It's not always smooth sailing in this new direction, but there are riches to be found. (…) Thea gives birth to Imogen and there is only more tragedy to come. Perhaps a bit too much tragedy, finally. The last revelations are so grim that credibility starts to strain. There is also, for Coe, a surprising streak of sentimentality, unleavened by his usual coruscating wit. (D)espite some bumps, The Rain Before It Falls is brief, potent and melancholy, like a short sad song. Perhaps something from the Smiths." - Patrick Ness, The Guardian

  • "All this is by way of saying that Jonathan Coe is a consummate and skilful writer. The Rain Before It Falls is an unsettling account of three generations of appalling mother-on-daughter abuse -- mental, emotional and physical. (…) By the end, I couldn't help feeling that Rosamond, self-appointed bringer of a questionable enlightenment, is in many ways as flawed as the worst of them." - Carol Birch, The Independent

  • "Rosamond's voice is by turns sweet, regretful and nostalgic, but never bitter. It is utterly authentic and her quiet integrity makes her a compelling narrator. (…) The gaps between periods of time as he moves between photographs create an ebb and flow of hopes and ambitions abandoned or compromised. Coe leaves us to consider whether destiny is behind the recurrence of random events or inherited faults. (…) This is an impeccable character study and a vivid evocation of time and place. As a novelist, he has just produced his best work." - Ed Wood, Independent on Sunday

  • "The novel's frame (...) is neither far-fetched nor especially new (it's a favorite movie trick for tracking back and forth in time), but here it lends itself to an efflorescence of description and explanation that overwhelms Coe's spare, precise prose. (...) He's very good at depicting the tipping point at which unloved children who have moved heaven and earth to gain the affection of their parents suddenly rear up and turn on them. But his tribute to these particular damaged goods seems inspired more by abstract ideas about ineluctable destiny than by the vagaries of real flesh and blood." - Ella Taylor, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It's to Coe's credit that he doesn't let his otherwise enormously sympathetic narrator shrink from voicing the way that a child's misfortune can become the occasion of something "almost too wonderful to contemplate." And it's also a singular achievement of The Rain Before It Falls that Coe can leave the bruising verdict behind such a wish unstated: that the dogmatic denial of family ties can be just as disfiguring as their dogmatic strictures." - Chris Lehmann, The Nation

  • "Rosamond's voice is rich with foreboding (…..) Her moments of veering confusion are excellently judged, as are her pauses and repetitions. One of Coe's main strengths is his ability so fully to inhabit this spoken voice. (…) Coe has the ability to arouse interest wherever his gaze falls, and in the chinks of reference to the more banal tribulations of the contemporary narrative (a faithless boyfriend, a marriage rut) lie intimations of potentially tragic bifurcations." - Toby Lichtig, New Statesman

  • "One of the things that makes The Rain Before It Falls superb, and which connects it with Mr. Coe's previous, less personal work, is its way with period detail. (…) Part of what makes this outwardly melodramatic story so affecting, besides the sentence-by-sentence smartness of Rosamond's voice, is our background awareness that it is being heard by the unsuspecting Gill and her daughters. It is as if characters from Mr. Coe's previous novels, citizens in the swim of contemporary life, suddenly stumbled onto something from another level and were held by it, enrapt." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "The Rain Before It Falls is a peculiar book, to put it kindly; it is itself a failure, in more brutal terms. It’s peculiar because it’s hard to understand why Coe, an accomplished novelist, did (it seems) everything in his power to distance his readers from the characters and situations he wishes to portray; reading along, it’s hard not to think of Alice, bored by a book without pictures or conversations. Pictures are described, but they never come to life; and because the great majority of the book takes place in Rosamond’s haphazard, randomly judgmental memory, the conversations that might have enlivened it are almost entirely absent. (...) If Coe is attempting a Jamesian trick of revelation through concealment, it doesn’t come off." - Erica Wagner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The central conceit of the book -- that the story unfolds from descriptions of photos -- has the disadvantage of slowing the pace. Here the writing seems to borrow some vitality from a moving picture. (…) This is a story of family trauma, but of an oblique kind, in which people fall through the cracks, vanish in plain sight. (…) It's hard to know how seriously to take this rather half-hearted suggestion of mysterious forces at work. It's as if Coe sensed his story needed a boost of energy if it wasn't to seem slight and uninvolving, but didn't know where to find it." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Humour and light relief have been ruthlessly excised; despite the clarity of the prose, the novel can be a bit of a plod. And the details aren’t always careful enough. (…) These quibbles matter, because they undermine the sense of veracity Coe so earnestly seeks. But his brave attempt to probe the darker side of mid-20th-century female experience is commendable, as is his refusal to allow the past to explain itself away." - Charlotte Moore, The Spectator

  • "It is a good story, packed (as family stories usually are) with secrets and lies, and patterns that recur through the generations in a satisfyingly frustrating fashion. Coe’s treatment of his characters has its habitual winning tenderness, and his perceptions are as acute as ever. The novel has, in other words, everything you need for success, which makes the narrative strategy all the more puzzling. For Coe has effectively doubled his distance from his subject by relaying the information through not just one but two essentially static forms -- recorded voice and recorded image. It is mechanical reproduction gone mad. (…) Coe has escaped the constraints of comedy only to impose an unforgivingly restrictive structure on himself. He would make a wonderful straight man if he could just, paradoxically, allow himself to let go." - Sophie Harrison, Sunday Times

  • "Coe has always used odd, teasing, multiple narrative voices, and texts within texts, but in The Rain Before It Falls the tricks have become artistry. There is no sense of Coe showing off with his multiple perspectives ("Note my clever postmodern trickery, reader ! ") or toying with you. The emotional force of the book derives from coincidences, accidents, hints and echoes, and yet you don't feel cheated or manipulated. (…) The Rain Before It Falls is a work of maturity. On the level of the sentence Coe writes musically, rhythmically, and with restraint" - Ian Sansom, The Telegraph

  • "(U)nusual and affecting (…..) The self-righteous heroine, simmering with genteel indignation at flightier women who break the rules, is reminiscent of an Anita Brookner character. But hats off to a male writer who can enter such traditionally female territory and acquit himself with aplomb." - David Robson, The Telegraph

  • "A brilliant, moving exploration of the making -- and unmaking -- of a child." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "If Rosamond's temperament makes for a somewhat mannered novel, it's nevertheless an absorbing one." - Alexis Soloski, The Village Voice

  • "In tone, it's neither ironic nor antic; in form, it's concentrated and controlled. (...) Coe won't allot more lyricism to a character than she can handle, and Rosamond remains the most prosaic member of her family. Yet there is beauty in her narrative, often in her descriptions of timeless landscapes, and there's a depth of human understanding. How interesting, then, that the force of Rosamond's own feelings, some of which she hardly acknowledges, sets the reader to wondering about her reliability as a narrator." - Frances Taliaferro, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Rain before it Falls tells a story within a story. It begins with Gill learning of the death of her aunt, Rosamond, and dealing with the funeral and the estate. Rosamond was apparently in the middle of recording herself on a tape-recorder when she died, and she left behind a number of filled cassettes. She left a note for Gill, telling her that these were meant for someone named Imogen (who is also to share in the estate as a whole with Gill and her brother) -- but that if she can't be found, Gill should listen to them.
       Gill had met Imogen some twenty years earlier: she was a blind girl, seven years old at the time, all by herself at Rosamond's fiftieth birthday party. The tapes, which Gill eventually listens to (as Imogen can't be found), reveal the girl's history and relationship with Rosamond, as well as telling all about Rosamond's own life.
       How Gill came to have and then listen to the tapes, with her own two daughters, is a sort of framing device, beginning and end -- as well as an intermission, as they have to break off listening at one point -- but the heart of the novel is Rosamond's recorded account.
       It isn't really an account, either: Rosamond has chosen twenty pictures from her past and describes each one -- and the surrounding situations -- to the blind girl she hasn't seen in decades. It amounts to a summary of Rosamond's life, but also provides insight into Imogen's own background and circumstances, situating her, as it were. As Rosamond explains:

What I want you to have, Imogen, above all, is a sense of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and the forces that made you.
       A central figure is Rosamond's slightly older cousin, Beatrix -- Imogen's grandmother. During World War II the eight-year-old Rosamond is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the countryside, and eleven-year-old Beatrix becomes her closest friend. In part it is a default-relationship: they have no one else to turn to; indeed, Beatrix's own parents are distant and seem relatively indifferent to their daughter (there are also two older sons).
       In the twenty episodes from her life, Rosamond describes her changing relationship with Beatrix, and then the next generations. Beatrix marries very young -- far too young -- and has a daughter, Thea. Just like her own mother, Beatrix is incapable of providing the type of nurturing environment needed for the successful emotional growth of the child -- just as Thea will, eventually, also horribly fail her own daughter, Imogen, when she too has a child far too young. Rosamond remains something of a friend to Beatrix, and plays a significant role in first Thea's and then, very briefly, in Imogen's life, but especially in Thea's case it is too little -- and damagingly suddenly cut off.
       Rosamond's account, and the slowly unfolding larger picture of who Imogen is and what happened to her, is compelling and often moving, an old woman looking back on life and her loves and losses and regrets. Three generations of horribly failed mothers -- Beatrix's mother, Beatrix, and Thea -- and the consequences of how they treated their daughters give the book a very hard edge, however. These women are thoroughly unpleasant and damaged (and damaging) creatures -- though both Beatrix and Thea seem, after a long while (and far too late for their daughters), to get their acts together. Given this family history one also has to wonder why Rosamond feels compelled to burden Imogen with all this -- especially when she chooses to do so at a time when she knows she won't have to answer for it (because she'll be dead); Coe awkwardly avoids the full implications of Rosamond's act by never having Imogen hear the cassettes.
       It is Gill and her daughters that get the whole story, another set of mother-and-daughters, the one conveniently in her own bad (but, as it turns out, fairly harmlessly so) little relationship. The last blanks are also conveniently filled in, by a letter from Thea (as part of this family's problem continues to be that they don't seem to be able to communicate much face-to-face ...) which gives the rest of her (and Imogen's) story.
       Coe presents the stories -- especially Rosamond's picture-based accounts -- very well, and these scenes-from-a-life are often affecting and very well done. But too often there's a sense of padding what is a much simpler story that could be told more directly. The scene in which the title-words are explained is wonderful, and yet it also feels like Coe felt he had to write half a novel just so he could set such a scene. In its jumps and selective memory The Rain before it Falls already is a very compressed tale -- the essentials culled from a much larger family saga, it sometimes seems -- and yet the very essence Coe seems after, of the effect parent-figures have on young children, seems too often too drawn out and repeated in variations on a theme.
       All in all, the book feels oddly unbalanced, a novel tailored to a specific story (or family history) -- and/or a message. Coe is adept enough that he can shake almost anything out of his sleeves, but it doesn't quite work here. Yes, The Rain before it Falls is an engaging read -- even a page-turner, of sorts -- but it doesn't quite stand up on its own as is.

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The Rain before it Falls: Reviews: Jonathan Coe: Other books by Jonathan Coe under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities. He is the author of several novels.

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© 2008-2023 the complete review

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