A novel that refuses to settle down…

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Tom rachman 2nd novelThirty-one year old Tooly Zylberberg is trying to read a book in the loss-making second-hand bookshop that she had bought in a village known as World’s End, just over the Welsh border.

Their business plan had been to subsist on spillover custom from the annual literary festival in nearby Hay-on-Wye, and the eleven-day event did funnel trade to World’s End. Unfortunately, it had a negligible effect during the remaining three hundred and fifty-four days in the calendar.

She has one employee, the loyal Fogg, a few years her junior, a scruffy young man who likes to pontificate.

‘You want one?’ Fogg was constantly seeking pretexts to fetch cappuccino from the Monna Lisa Cafe, part of his attempt to court an Estonian barista there. […] Indeed, Tooly had first discerned his crush on the barista by the frequency with which he needed the toilet, leading her to remark that his cappucchino conspiracy was affecting the correct organ but in the incorrect manner.

But in chapter two, we leave the bookshop and jump back to 1999 when Tooly is twenty, walking the streets of New York. She intends to cover the entire city eventually, but she is distracted by a man walking a pig going into an apartment building – so she pretends she used to live there so he lets her in to take a look.

On the fourth floor, she chose a door and stood before it, envisaging what lay on the other side. This was her favourite part, like shaking a wrapped present and guessing its contents. She knocked, pressed the bell. No answer.

All right, then – this was not to be her long-lost childhood home. She’d pick another. She scanned the hallway, and noticed keys hanging from a scratched Yale lock. The door was ajar. She called out softly, in case the occupant had merely stepped away. No response.

With  the rubber nose of her Converse sneaker, Tooly prodded the base of the door, which opened tremblingly upon a long parquet corridor. A young man lay there on his back, surrounded by shopping bags. He stared upwards, eyelashes batting as he studied the corridor ceiling, utterly unaware of her in his doorway.

No sooner have we met Duncan, a student at Columbia University, with whom Tooly will have a short-lived relationship, than we’re off again back to 1988. 9-year-old Tooly is in Australia with Paul, a computer engineer, who is preparing for them to leave the country after less than a year there. They head for Bangkok, where she will have a big adventure.

Back to 1999 for there are still a few important characters to meet including Humphrey, whose room is next to Tooly’s in Brooklyn. Humphrey is seventy-two with a thick Russian accent. He plays ping-pong and chess and has a treasured little library of dog-eared paperbacks. He is the nearest thing to a grandparent that Tooly has; a surrogate, and he loves her just like a real grandpa would. Humphrey is lovably grumpy; when he realises Tooly has to go out to meet Venn, he moans at her:

“…It’s very colding outside.”
“For a Russian, you’re so whiny about the weather.”
“I am low-quality Russian.”

Venn is her friend, a shady businessman and her protector.

She’d seen so little of Venn since their arrival here from Barcelona. He’d come a couple of weeks earlier to set up the basics of whatever business had lured him to New York. So far, they’d only had only had one other meet-up in this city. […] Cities changed; never their friendship.

And lastly, we meet Sarah Pastore, “a worn forty-two,” who turns up in New York.

Sarah was a recurrent feature of their lives, residing with Tooly and Humphrey for spells, even travelling with them. But months could pass without word of her. Then Venn took pity, apprised her of their latest whereabouts – and there she was.

That takes us to around page 120 (in the hardback). We’re now about a third of the way through the novel, we’ve jumped about between 2011, 1999 and 1988 several times and met all the main characters, but we don’t really know them at all, yet let alone how they’re all connected to Tooly, whose real name is Matilda by the way. Over the next 250 pages, Rachman gradually teases out the enigma that surrounds all their relationships to Tooly, again jumping between the three timeframes and various locations.

If you thought, like me initially, that this would be a book about a bookshop and books, you would be wrong.  It is that, but only in passing. Although I really enjoyed reading this novel and loved many of its characters, particularly Tooly, Humphrey and Fogg, I felt it got rather bogged down in its own refusal to settle in one place for more than a few pages for most of the novel. I enjoyed the three timelines – each giving a different aspect of the life of Tooly, but was often distracted by the jumping around the world. I couldn’t wait for Tooly to discover the truth of her peripatetic life – it just took a little too long. I’m told that Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, is brilliant – it is on my shelves(!) and it’ll be interesting to see what Rachman does next. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.

Tom Rachman, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (Sceptre, 2014) – paperback, 416 pages.

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