As Tooly strolled back downtown, she glanced at other buildings. No matter how she imagined their insides – parties veering out of control, kitchens with faucets running, angry couples playing cards for real money – the truth was always more peculiar. In a vertical city, cramped dwellings were the only territory unreservedly reserved, each home an intimate fortress. Yet they were so easy to penetrate. ('Don't want to intrude, but I used to live here. Might it be possible to take a quick look? I happened to be passing and – wow, even just standing here, so many memories!') Mostly, one needed only knock, say a few lines, enter. Why limit yourself to the outside when you could walk right in, peek at their lives – maybe even leave with a handy nugget.
Who is Tooly Zylberberg? How did she end up running a second-hand bookstore in Wales? The Russian émigré Humphrey teaches her to play chess, but how does he fit in? Or Sarah who turns up without warning and then disappears again? And what about Venn, the shadowy and charismatic figure who seems to be one step ahead of everybody?
Spanning three decades, and taking us from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is a story about how mystifying the past can be, and how the lives we lead can seem indecipherable even to us. It's a story about unexpected connections and the revelations that change everything.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers will consolidate Rachman's reputation as one of the most assured and exciting young writers alive.
both funny and thought-provoking
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the second full-length novel by British-born journalist and author, Tom Rachman. At the age of thirty, Tooly Zylerberg, a woman with a very unconventional past, buys a bookshop in Caergenog, a small village in Wales. A few years later, as she works in her slowly-failing business, Tooly receives an email that draws her back to New York, back to her past. Toolyâ€™s history is gradually revealed as the narrative switches between three distinct time periods: in 1988, Tooly is in Bangkok with Paul; in 1999/2000, she is living in New York with Humphrey; and 2011 Tooly travels New York and further. The slow reveal makes for plenty of intrigue as the reader wonders about the unusual characters that people Toolyâ€™s life and the transitions between those three significant phases described. Rachman fills his novel with memorable individuals, few of whom turn out to be quite what they first seem: Tooly herself, quirky, funny and highly individual; the emotionally undemonstrative yet deeply caring Paul; the enigmatic and very charismatic Venn; the Russian ex-pat Humphrey, who teaches Tooly to play chess and cements her love of books; the volatile, unpredictable Sarah, full of mercurial moods and melodrama, flitting in and out of Toolyâ€™s life; the steady, stable Duncan, lawyer and music enthusiast; the somewhat eccentric Welshman, Fogg; and the opinionated Emerson, (â€œa mediocrity in search of an admiration societyâ€). Rachmanâ€™s varied cast offer opinions on historic events, current affairs and life in general (â€œâ€¦.progress played a trick. It presented the ultimate gluttony of all: those double clicks that turned everyone into rodents pressing buttons for the next sugar pellet. People who used to deride the losers for watching ten hours of TV a day wonâ€™t hesitate to click a mouse for longerâ€ and â€œPeople did not see the world for what it was, but for what they wereâ€). His descriptive prose is wonderfully evocative (â€œTo the right lay England: quilted countryside seamed by hedgerows and trees, every field fenced in and farmed. To the left was Wales: a tangle of rambling green, flinty farmhouses, forbidding woodsâ€ and â€œThe disquiet of others was an undiscovered force alongside gravity that, rather than pulling downwards, emanated outward from its sourceâ€ and â€œIn the hotel lobby, a brass revolving door swallowed Tooly, spat her into the metropolis, her entrance punctuated by doormen whistling for cabs and the bap-bap-bap of hornsâ€). Readers will laugh out loud (especially at Humphreyâ€™s mangling of idiomatic expressions and his theory of baldness in Russian politics) and be moved to tears as Tooly finally uncovers her past. Certain passages will resonate with lovers of print books: â€œPeople kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again, but because these objects contained the past â€“ the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of oneâ€™s intellectâ€ and â€œBooks, he said, are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closetâ€ and â€œTo disappear into pages was to be blissfully obliterated. For the duration, all that existed was her companions in print; her own life went stillâ€. Rachman touches on diverse topics: print books in the digital age; the idea of meritocracy; the link between vulnerability and courage; the legacy we leave when we die; the power of others to influence our view of life. The cover art of books end-on is cleverly done. This novel is both funny and thought-provoking: it will prompt readers to seek out Rachmanâ€™s earlier works to experience more of his unique style.