Every picture, they say, is worth a thousand words, and in Jonathan Coe's eighth work of fiction, The Rain Before It Falls, the reader lucks out in both categories. The clever underlying premise of the story lies in 20 pictures the 73-year-old Rosamond refers to as she tapes her life memories for her blind distant cousin, Imogen, in hopes of explaining how Imogen fits into their dysfunctional family. When she cannot be located after Rosamond's death, Rosamond's niece Gill and her daughters, who have concerns of their own, must listen to the tapes and determine their fate.

Tapping into childhood memories of World War II, Rosamond explores photographs taken in the months she spent at the farm of her young cousin Bea during the historic evacuation of the children from London. Bea is an anomaly and, in a sense, can be considered the key to almost everything that happens. Unloved by her mother, Bea welcomes Rosamond and immediately makes her a "blood sister." From the very beginning, though, she pursues her own agenda, eventually at the cost of her own daughter, Thea, and her granddaughter, Imogen.

This major storyline is accompanied by Rosamond's gradual recognition of her own lesbian inclinations, and indeed, the tapes reveal more about the older generations than they do about their intended recipient. Even the presence of the mostly unknown picture takers and makers sets up a haunting heartbeat in a story that is triggered by unknowns, especially of intentions and unheeded life lessons.

Coe, a British author who has received multiple prizes for his work, derived his title from a tune by Michael Gibbs, and his gloss on it is touching, as young Thea announces at one point that she likes "the rain before it falls," because "it makes her happy even if it isn't real" yet. In the end, such a tenuous hold on joy proves unequal to the tug of world and family. As Gill learns for herself, in a curiously unelaborated close, omens can be affectingly true but basically unhelpful in the end.

Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.

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