Monday, July 7, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers begins in 2011 in a quaint bookshop in the Welsh village of Caergenog. Tooly isn't making enough to afford to pay her only employee, Fogg, but until her money runs out, she enjoys his company as much as she loves being surrounded by books.

  "Against the stacks rested a stepladder that Tooly was always moving to Mountaineering and that Fogg -- not recognizing her joke -- kept returning to French History."

The wit and warmth of Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionistsis delightfully in evidence. In both books, pieces come together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Tooly lived a peripatetic life, moving around the globe from a young age with an assortment of mysterious adults in charge. Even as an adult herself, Tooly isn't sure what relationship she bears to any of them. It's time for her to find answers. Like the process of memory, the narrative juggles back and forth in time.

Here's Tooly at age 9 in 1988, on a flight to Bangkok with Paul:

  "When the print issued from the Polaroid, the young woman flapped it till the image appeared, holding it out for them to see. Paul took the photo, thanking her for the gift, which it hadn't been, and slid the snapshot into his book.
  A sniffle alerted them to Paul's return. He stepped back to the middle seat and frowned at Tooly's ponytail. He viewed fashion with bemusement. The purpose of clothing, as best he could tell, was to keep one unembarrassed and at the right temperature. If an outfit served that purpose for a respectable period -- twenty years, say -- and at the lowest price available, then it was successful. He dressed identically every day: a polo shirt tucked into khakis, Velcro-fastened black shoes. 'Your hair looks like a pineapple that fell over,' he told Tooly. The woman in the aisle, with the identical style, blushed and turned away, ignoring them for the rest of the flight."

Paul is a computer systems analyst who reminds me of Don Tillman in Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project. It's in Bangkok that the child Tooly meets Humphrey for the first time. He is the one who instills in her a love for books.

  "He yanked at the jammed door. On the third pull, it burst apart in an explosion of hardcovers and paperbacks.
  'Are you okay?" she asked, stepping through the mess to help him.
  'Books,' 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 closet.'
  'At my house, we put clothes in closets.'
  He sneered at this misapplication of furniture. 'But where you keep literature?'"

Tooly's belated search for people who disappeared from her life begins in New York City in 2011.

  "In her absence, New York had been invaded by cupcakes. Joggers ran barefoot now. Hipsters wore nerd glasses and beards. And walking had become an obstacle course, pedestrians inebriated on handheld devices, jostling one another as they passed, glancing up dimly at the shared world, then back into the bottomless depths projected form shining glass."

It isn't Tooly's fault that she knows so little. Eleven years earlier, her questions about the past had been sidestepped like this:

  " dearest darling thing. Memories are so boring. They're always wrong, and only cause trouble. Remembering is the most overrated thing. Forgetting is far superior."

Trouble or not, this time Tooly is determined get to the bottom of things.

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