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REVIEW: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

– by Tom Rachman – 

19104786

 

Tom Rachman’s second novel has many of the same sparkling qual
ities that drew me to The Imperfectionists:  exotic locales, quirky characters, and intricately plotted narrative.  But it seems to me that he has really grown up in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by creating characters like Tooly, Humphrey, Venn, Paul, Sarah, Mac, and Noeline who, in their complexity and unpredictability and sheer humanity, will stay with me for a long time.

The central character owns a bookstore which, she realizes, is for some people “a show-room for online purchases.  This was increasingly common, the practitioners identifiable by their note-taking on prices and ISBNs, and their failure to ever buy anything.  Some openly consulted Web prices on smartphones and, hand on the doorknob, lamented how few good bookshops remained.”

NOTE:  WE DO SEE THIS TYPE AT SHELF LIFE IN FACT.  IF YOU RECOGNIZE YOURSELF IN THIS DESCRIPTION, SHAME ON YOU!  (AND IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO CHANGE.)
Unlike me, however, “Tooly wasn’t indignant:  you couldn’t stop a tidal wave by wagging your finger at it.  She considered bookselling to be a terminal vocation.  More discouraging to her was that the heavyweights on these shelves held such puny sway.  No matter their ideas and worth, they lived as did the elderly — in a world with little patience to hear them out.”
There’s so much to like about Tooly;  for example,

“Back in her twenties, she had considered her body parts irrelevant to the whole of herself, as if she lived in a container unrelated to the contained.” (34)  In this she is very unlike the deeply flawed Sarah, who  “valued looks above all other human traits, perhaps because she’d chanced into good ones, a corruption more dangerous than riches, given that the body’s wealth always runs out.  Her wearisome preoccupation had led Tooly to vow never to care about presentation.  But it hadn’t ended up quite so.  She did have preferences:  a distaste for tended beauty;  a fondness for scruffiness, for the sort of men Sarah would have considered unkempt peons; and a strident neglect of her own, admittedly ordinary, endowments.”

In precis, Tooly is an orphan and the three time frames of the novel answer the question of her mysterious parentlessness in a very engaging and unexpected way.  The plot has twists and turns, the characters aren’t w
ho they seem, and all ends if not well then interestingly.  There are a lot of things to like about Tom Rachman, not the least of which is that he is a Canadian wh
o writes from a truly global perspective.  The one Canadian character springs from a Gulf Island cult and is a very slippery figure indeed.

(BTW Tooly’s  bookstore does get a happy ending by, among other things, adapting to the changing times…..)

— JoAnn McCaig