The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, book review: How do you improve on imperfection?

 

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The Independent Culture

To describe Tom Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionists (2010), as a big hit is an understatement. His portrayal of the staff of a Rome-based US newspaper won him global sales, and attention from Brad Pitt, who bought the film rights.

Now comes this second novel. Rachman has clearly matured as an author. His writing is more literary and his descriptions of sights and sounds are often effective: "Syncopated police sirens blooped faintly from the street below, as if a kid were in there pressing buttons".

Rise and Fall, like its predecessor, jumps in time. The central character, Tooly (real name: Matilda) is a globetrotting misfit whose past is, initially, a mystery, revealed through casually dropped hints. Tooly runs a rickety bookstore in the (invented) Welsh village of Caergenog. How did she end up here after spending time in Chicago, in Brazil, Paris, Brussels and Seville? By finding a literary journal on a railway platform in Lisbon and discovering a bookshop is up for sale in Wales.

The reader follows Tooly as she tries to fill the gaps in her past. Her unconventional parents separate soon after having her. She spends her childhood forever on the move with a computer-wizard father who accepts one-year embassy contracts all over the world. Through unexpected circumstances, she and her father part ways, though Tooly keeps on moving. She winds up in New York as the girlfriend of a law student, then walks away, pathologically unable to set down roots. The book has a couple of characters whose real connection to Tooly only becomes clear towards the end. One is a bookish old Russian father figure holed up in his New York apartment, playing chess and spewing out words of wisdom. Another is a cool gangster who Tooly hero-worships.

In The Imperfectionists, Rachman portrayed a world he knew well: the American newsroom in Europe. His characters were variations on a familiar stereotype – the expatriate American journalist. The inhabitants of this novel are often weirdos with wacky trajectories to whom the reader can never really relate. The one endearing exception is Tooly, who, despite implausible chinks in the plot, is a realistically depicted brooding young woman.

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