x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A tale of neglect on tape

Coe has thwarted fans' attempts to pigeonhole him with a novel quite unlike any of his earlier works.

English novelist Jonathan Coe has an enviable backlist studded with hits like What a Carve Up! and The Rotters' Club. These spirited, social and political satires might be called cult had they not sold in such impressive quantities both at home and abroad. Artistic success can sometimes inhibit the very creativity that it sets out to celebrate, but Coe has thwarted fans' attempts to pigeonhole him, first with an award-winning biography of the experimental literary genius BS Johnson, and now with a novel quite unlike any of those earlier works.

"Where are the skewering skits, where the deft political parodies?" some critics have grumbled, and while it is true that you will find neither within the pages of this lean paperback, what you will find is love, longing and tragedy, as well as shrewd reflections on the binds between mothers and daughters and the legacy of neglect, all spread out against a succession of period-perfect backdrops, from the post-war austerity era to the Swinging Sixties.

The novel begins one bright autumn day, as Gill, a middle-aged mother of two grown girls, learns that she has been made the executor of her maiden aunt Rosamund's will. Letting herself into the old lady's abandoned house, Gill finds an empty bottle of pills, a drained Scotch glass, and a stack of cassette tapes piled beside a recorder and microphone. There is also a note, which reads simply "These are for Imogen. If you cannot find her, listen to them yourself."

Imogen is Gill's second cousin, who drifted from the family tree after she was somehow blinded as a toddler and then adopted at the age of three. Despite ransacking the internet and placing advertisements in newspapers, Gill cannot trace Imogen. Unable to contain their curiosity any longer, she and her daughters sit down together to listen to the cassettes. When the play button is hit, a tangled family saga commences that holds them rapt.

Rosamund starts by explaining her aim, which is to give Imogen a sense of where she comes from. To that end, she has pulled 20 snaps from the family photo albums that illustrate pivotal moments in the story that culminates in Imogen herself, and as the cassettes spool on, Rosamund sets about describing them. During the Second World War, Rosamond was evacuated from Birmingham to her aunt and uncle's sprawling home on the Welsh borders. There she fell under the spell of her wild older cousin, Beatrix, a girl alternately ignored and maltreated by her mother. Though they matured into very different young women, they stayed in touch, and Rosamond was on hand to witness Beatrix's tempestuous love affairs and utter failure as a mother to baby Thea. For a while, Thea even lived with Rosamond and her girlfriend in London. Thea in turn grew up to give birth to Imogen, whose fate is the mystery that drives the novel forward to its shocking denouement.

Together, the images that Rosamond narrates into being - some carefully posed, others mere fleeting moments - probe questions of destiny, betrayal and memory, and summon up feelings of rage and resentment, as well as losses so keen that they are barely dimmed by the passing years. Elegiac in its intensity, Coe's prose hints at the influence of another Rosamond, Rosamond Lehmann, while also reaching towards more philosophical truths.

As Gill reflects once Rosamond's tale is told: "The pattern she had been searching for had gone. Worse than that - it had never existed. How could it? What she had been hoping for was a figment, a dream, an impossible thing: the rain before it falls." In an age when bookstore shelves are groaning with lurid misery memoirs, this multi-generational fable suggests that simple neglect can be just as harmful.