Rise of a star
With just his sophomore novel, this author raises the bar on a critically-lauded debut.
IT seems that I may be one of the last people left standing who had not read, or even heard of, Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists. It was a massive critical and popular success in 2011, a bestseller globally in many languages for the London-based journalist. How it escaped me I am not sure but I am very glad indeed that The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers did not go the same way.
Great Powers, published in June, is a deceptively complex book despite its reasonably straightforward structure. Its central character is 30-year-old Matilda Zylberberg – referred to throughout as Tooly – who, when the novel opens, runs a spectacularly unsuccessful bookshop in the little Welsh town of Caergenog.
Her days pass in witty and idiosyncratic dialogues with her assistant, Fogg, “a man who formed opinions as he spoke them, or perhaps afterwards, requiring him to ramble at length to grasp what he believed”. Great Powers then develops with alternating chapters/sections covering, roughly speaking, the three decades of Tooly’s life: the late 1980s, the late 1990s and 2011.
Tooly has had anything but a conventional life so far. The picaresque quality of her exhilarating but rather mangled childhood takes her to Bangkok, New York and London, and places in between.
There are no wholly constant adults in her life, just recurring figures who variously care for and neglect her. How? Why? Who are these people and where have they come from? And how are they connected to Tooly, who calls them all by their first names and is even unclear about who her real parents are? The mystery at the heart of Great Powers is the mystery of identity and belonging, and Tooly’s journey is essentially one to find herself and her links with these mysterious others.
If this sounds impossibly serious it absolutely isn’t, largely because of the presence of Humphrey, a kindly, benevolent older man who utters pronouncements on reading, philosophy and the current state of the world in a heavy Russian accent. To say that his pronouncements are quirky is an understatement: a number of exchanges stand out but the one in which he explains to Tooly that the pattern of Russian history is determined by the need for its leaders to be alternately bald and hairy is a very funny gem.
Humphrey is a wonderful creation, constantly caring, entertaining and insightful, and of great importance to Tooly, just as she is to him.
Despite its many settings, Great Powers has a fairly small cast of central characters alongside Humphrey. Paul is Tooly’s earliest travelling companion in the book, a shy bird watcher whose job requires constant movement. The occasionally engaging but generally maddening Sarah flits in and out of Tooly’s life, turning her love and charm on and off at will. And then there are those like Duncan, Tooly’s 1990s lover, who remain in the half light. The only real equal of Humphrey is Venn, a magnetic and charismatic character whose activities are legally dubious and whose ethics are even more so. It is Venn who provides some of the book’s pithiest observations. Of the current social media whirl: “There aren’t places any more, duck...,” he says to Tooly when she asks where he has been; “No locations now, just individuals. You didn’t hear? Everyone’s their own nation, with their own blog. Because everybody has something important to say; everybody’s putting out press releases on what they ate for breakfast. It’s the era of self-importance. Everyone’s their own world. Doesn’t matter where people are. Or where I was.”
It is Venn who is involved in some of the book’s cruelest scenes. Nonetheless, Tooly is battle-scarred enough to deal with them, and later in the book, partly as a result of them, she looks at her assistant Fogg anew: “Perhaps she had inadvertently belittled him in the past. Why had she? That’s just how she was. But damn how she was! She didn’t accept that how one was is how one must remain. Consistency in character was a form of tragedy.”
Tooly lives in a world in which there is little consistency of anything but despite its shifting sands is able to recognise the potency and importance of change.
It is probably obvious by now that I thoroughly enjoyed Great Powers. This is an immensely readable and compelling book that covers a lot of ground lightly. It is also a book that lingers after you have finished it. Tinged with melancholy, bursting with bouts of laughter, sensitive, intelligent and just slightly sentimental, this could be a perfect book for your autumn read.