Skip to main content
book review

Tom Rachman’s novel continually upends expectation.

If you're in the market for an accomplished and satisfying novel, one that will take hold of you immediately from page one and set you down gently at the end feeling uplifted and rewarded, you could just stop reading at the end of this paragraph and wander over to your favourite bookstore and buy a copy of Tom Rachman's exquisite new book, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. You need only know that this is a finely crafted and elegant tale, devoid of gratuitous sex and violence, packed with import and thoughtfulness, playful at times, profound at others, featuring some of the most memorable characters you could hope to encounter. Don't even bother reading the jacket copy. Just buy it: this one is superlative.

A synopsis cannot do justice to this novel, but if you're not already on your way to the bookstore, read on.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is the story of Tooly Zylberberg. On the first page of the book, in 2011, Tooly is the proprietor of World's End, a bookshop in Wales, hard by the English border. As bookshops tend to be, World's End, is not profitable, but Tooly had been informed of this fact when she bought it. She considers bookselling "a terminal vocation," and she observes her bank balance "nearly with impatience for bankruptcy. This was the most fixed abode she'd known, and she couldn't shake an urge to lose it." All her possessions would fit in a canvas bag. "Over the past decade," we learn, "she had discarded anything of value." She pays her assistant, Fogg, from her own savings.

Booksellers are eccentric by nature, but who is this thirtyish woman of such soaring lack of ambition, and how has she come to ground in a used bookstore in a tucked away village in Wales?

Fogg has gradually introduced Tooly to the bookstore computer, and one night, after poking around on the Internet, Tooly sees a flag indicating that she has a friendship request on her Facebook account. "Because of her pseudonym, such requests came only from lurking weirdos."

This one, however, is from a name she recognizes, and the message is impossible to ignore.

Tom Rachman burst into the public consciousness in 2010 with his debut novel The Imperfectionists, a novel of great skill and composure that had critics and readers concerned how he could ever match it. He has.

One particular attribute that the new novel shares with its predecessor, however, is that it is harder to adequately describe than it is to read. There is just so much packed subtly and subversively into the narrative weave of this book that it's

easy to miss matters of great import.

Tooly's bucolic respite is undone by the aforementioned e-mail; she must make what is really a journey back into her past, to New York for a start, but while that undertaking unfolds, Rachman gives us two other strands to the story. There is very young Tooly, in 1998, and New York Tooly in 1999, and as 2011 Tooly steps hesitantly and unsurely back in time, the reader sees Tooly coming forward, as a child and as a young woman, through a series of half-understood adventures and misunderstood misadventures that make her present eccentricity not only comprehensible but inevitable.

What a tangled life she has led, and the reader shares her confusion and leaps of faith from the beginning to the end of this brilliantly constructed novel.

And along the way, great and powerful wisdom adheres. Who can really know their own childhood? What is the function, or for that matter the value, of a family? How can you know who to trust? How many, how variable, how unknowable are the ways of love? Can the real world, with all its cynicism, its manipulations, its distractions and its noise, ever be other than harmful to matters of the human heart?

This novel constantly upends expectation, constantly reminds us of what really matters. Altruism comes unexpectedly, and unbidden, as does responsibility, and love.

It is impossible not to care for characters who care so much for each other.

Tooly Zylberberg is a truly memorable character in a book that overflows with wonderfully realized and complex personalities. She is honest, considerate and kindhearted. In the end she must discover that what she has always been seeking is not at all what she has found.

This is a brilliant and highly accomplished novel, and so much of the wisdom it contains happens in the background that it isn't until after reading it, or re-reading it, that much becomes clear. This is what fiction is all about. It is impossible to overstate its power and elegance.

Ben McNally is a bookseller in Toronto.