Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Book Review: "The Rise & Fall of Great Powers" by Tom Rachman
Matilda "Tooly" Zylberberg is an American living in Wales, the owner of a struggling bookshop. She lives a relatively solitary life, as her only companion (since the shop has so few customers) is Fogg, the rumpled employee she inherited when she bought the store. In 2011, Tooly is a bit of an anachronism, as she lacks the desire or the means to connect with the outside world virtually, except through the shop's beat-up computer.
But when curiosity gets the best of Tooly, and she cyberstalks former friends on the internet using an alias, she is contacted by an ex-boyfriend, pleading with her to get in touch with him about an important figure from Tooly's past. This reconnection reminds Tooly of her childhood and young adulthood, a mysterious period of time even she doesn't quite understand to this day.
Taken from the life she knew as a young girl, she was raised around the world by a motley crew of peopleHumphrey, the grumpy-but-cuddly Russian with a passion for chess, reading, and ping-pong; tempestuous, flighty Sarah; and Venn, the enigmatic leader of the group, who inspired their capers. Tooly learned early on to live a life of mystery and obfuscate the truth from those who sought to know her better, even if that hampered her ability to form long-lasting relationships.
"Friends required a life story. Your past mattered only if others sought to know itit was they who demanded that one possessed a history. Alone, you could do without."
Hearing from her ex-boyfriend propels Tooly on a journey around the world, desperate to understand the secrets about her childhood that had eluded her for so long. Is anything in her life the way she thought it was? Is her identity predicated on the truth about her life, or is it based on those who raised her? Tooly is both desperate for and afraid of the answers she will find.
I enjoyed Tom Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionists, but at times I felt as if the characters kept me at arm's length and I never felt fully engaged in their stories. I felt the same way with The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. Told in chapters that shift back and forth through time, from the late 1980s, Tooly's childhood and her first encounters with her abductors; to the late 1990s and early 2000s as she tries forming relationships but keeps running into the truth; to 2011, as she tries to understand who she really is, I felt the book was a little disjointed.
Tooly is an interesting character herself, but I wasn't particularly enamored of many of the characters who surrounded her. I felt as if, much like Tooly did herself with those in her life, Rachman tried to hide the truth about her from the reader, when in reality, the truth was pretty obvious, and I really had trouble getting into the narrative.