“[The]past is like overseas: it still exists, even when you are not there anymore. Future time too. It is there already.” – Tom Rachman, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
My reading slump came to an end earlier this month with The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. It is his second book since his critically acclaimed debut, The Imperfectionists. In some ways it’s more difficult to talk about a book you like than one you don’t—so much easier to be clever at someone’s expense. And I liked this book very much, so I’ll just tell you about it.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the story of Matilda—Tooly—Zylberberg, owner of a failing bookshop situated in a tiny Welsh village and run with the help of Fogg, a twenty-eight-year-old “urban sophisticate, no matter how his location, how his entire life, militated against such a role.” Tooly leads a solitary life running her shop, playing the ukulele and taking walks in the hills, when a message from someone in her past lands in her Facebook inbox: “Desperately trying to reach you. Can we talk about your father???” Which might be startling enough except that Tooly doesn’t know to whom he is referring.
And so Tooly and the reader begin a journey into her past which takes us to New York, Thailand, England and Italy, from the 1980s to the present day. Through a narrative that moves back and forth in time, her life is slowly revealed.
At age nine Tooly travels the globe with a man she addresses as Paul (who could be her father) and a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. (There are lots of Dickensian touches in the book, including lost or missing fathers, characters with names like Fogg and Mr. Priddles, and an “orphaned” protagonist adrift in a dangerous world.) In Bangkok Tooly goes to school briefly, until she meets Sarah, a charismatic figure who alternately showers her with lavish affection and ignores her completely. One day Sarah takes her to a party and introduces her to Humphrey, a Russian who reads philosophy and addresses Tooly as “darlink”, and the alluring Venn whose manner toward Tooly is both respectful and protective.
From that point on Tooly leads a peripatetic life with this unconventional new family. Venn’s philosophy of freedom and independence —and his charm— is so seductive that Tooly is willing to do anything to please him. At twenty she’s sharing an apartment in New York with Humphrey and inserting herself into the lives of a group of college students. She begins a relationship with a law student named Duncan, initially with the hopes of picking up some useful information to take back to Venn. Duncan falls in love with her of course, since he is twenty and insecure, and Tooly is mysterious and detached.
As Tooly learns more about her past she begins to question the assumptions she made about the people around her, and their true motivations, and to think about the power of others over her life. Fortunately for Tooly, and for us, not all of life’s lessons are cynical ones, and if charm can sometimes mask venality, grace and generosity may come in a homely guise. As a reader we’re sometimes wise to the hidden motivations of the adults around Tooly before she is, but not always.
The story ranges geographically and spans decades but the result is surprisingly intimate. The title hints at grand events, but there are no sweeping scenes or dramatic revelations in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. (Sorry, if that’s what you like, it’s not here, and there have been some reviews complaining that the pace is dull. But then if that was all I cared about I wouldn’t read Murakami either, and I love him.) It is the people with whom we share our lives that leave an indelible mark on us, and acts of love, both disguised and declared, that affect our course.
As in The Imperfectionists, each page sings with beautifully observed characters, evocative description and thoughtful prose. But while The Imperfectionists was episodic, (more linked stories than a novel) The Rise and Fall of Great Powers combines ideas, style and structure into a cohesive and emotionally satisfying story. This is a wonderful book and I wanted to read it all over again as soon as I was done. I can’t wait to see what Tom Rachman does next.
Tom Rachman will read from The Rise and Fall of Great Powers at the York Quay Centre in Toronto on Wednesday June 25 at 7:30 pm.