Pictures of you

<strong>The Rain Before It Falls</strong>

Jonathan Coe <em>Viking, 288pp, £17.99</em>

Best known for his smart sociopolitical comedy, Jonathan Coe has made a bold departure. His new novel is straight-faced, pensive, steeped in understated turmoil. It is beautifully weighted and entirely compelling; less page-turning (though the plot will keep you rapt) than immersing. Coe has been compared to Waugh and Wodehouse. Here, he is more reminiscent of Ian McEwan at his most effective: poised, crafted, disquieting. Doris Lessing also springs to mind.

The Rain Before It Falls concerns four generations of women. It is a tale of hereditary turbulence, of neglect begetting violence. It opens in the present with a death: Rosamond, a childless septuagenarian, has been found slumped in her chair next to a bottle of whiskey, a jar of Diazepam, a cassette recorder and some tapes. Her niece and executor, Gill, has been instructed to give the tapes to the grand-daughter of Rosamond's late cousin, a blind girl in her twenties called Imogen, from whom no one has heard in years. If Imogen can't be found (she can't), Gill must listen to the tapes herself.

Our interest has already been piqued by Gill's present circumstances - her newly grown-up daughters; her lack of "nourishment" in England; her husband's nagging sense of "having obscurely failed her" - but the narrative quickly swerves away into Rosamond's taped story. This centres around 20 photographs that Rosamond has chosen as mnemonic springboards for a potted family history. "Most young people acquire [a] sense of themselves . . . through looking at photographs," says Rosamond (speaking to the absent Imogen). "But you have never been able to do this."

So follows a tale of snowballing dysfunction, hidden behind images of suburban calm and smiling faces ("What a deceitful thing a photograph is"). Rosamond's voice is rich with foreboding, in her assertion that "there is a reason for everything" and her repeated suggestions that "everything might have turned out quite differently". 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.

The events themselves are prosaic enough to start with: Rosamond recollects her wartime friendship with her cousin Bea (Imogen's grandmother), their youthful misadventures and vulnerabilities. The young Rosamond is in awe of Bea, and prey to future manipulations. Bea's mother is cold, aloof, more interested in her pet spaniel; when Bea accidentally hurts him, the mother's tone is "murderous . . . icy with hate". Coe has a knack for capturing the psychological magnitude of tiny events. When Bea actually loses the spaniel, we are already so tense that he can profitably leave the consequences to our imagination.

Bea, by now damaged goods, gets pregnant and marries the reluctant father. She soon tires of this arrangement and takes off to Ireland with another hapless suitor. Rosamond prefers women and moves in with the love of her life (there are also hints of an early attraction to Bea). When Bea returns and abandons baby Thea to the couple, they promise to look after her for a while. Two weeks becomes two years. A bond forms and Rosamond plays at happy families.

Then Thea is seized back and the process continues. She is treated with contempt by the erratic Bea, and on occasion violence. Rosamond is caught in the middle, but ultimately remains passive. Thea becomes withdrawn, grows up and goes on to spawn an unloved daughter. This is baby Imogen, a target of Thea's "shocking temper". It has been hinted throughout that Thea is no longer part of the family, taken away when she was young. We soon discover why.

In the background lurk the listeners (Gill and her daughters), captivated by the "gradual unveiling of their family's occult, unsuspected history". Gill's good relationship with her children provides a counterpoint to the darker narrative; but all families, we are reminded, contain murky strains and secrets. 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.

Perhaps most interesting is the character of Rosamond herself: kindly seeming, gentle, shrewd, but jaded. When Thea was taken back, Rosamond's lover left, too. A subsequent relationship with a woman based on "fondness" failed to fill the void. Childlessness hasn't helped. Rosamond seems desperate to pass something on; but what exactly is her motive in divulging this material to Imogen? "Why on earth am I telling you this?" she interjects at one stage. "It can do nothing but hurt you."

Rosamond is desperate to connect the threads of incident. Though mindful that there is never just one answer ("one of the fundamental conditions of our existence [is] to accept the truth of two things that flatly contradict each other"), she is much taken by a vague notion of fate and keeps referring to Imogen's "inevitability". Her quest for an overarching narrative makes her an appealing raconteur. It nearly seduces Gill, who glimpses above the gloom an epiphany: the rain before it falls. But the pattern swiftly dissipates. Rain isn't rain until it has fallen; and stories are not stories until the events within them have occurred, irreparably.

Toby Lichtig is an assistant editor at the TLS

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown