Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

published 2014






[1988 – on a flight to Bangkok]

The occupants of this bank of three seats – Tooly, Paul, and an unknown young woman on the aisle – remained alert. At any engine noise, the woman flinched… Tooly spread her long tangled hair over her face, blowing strands, then chewing them, all the while observing the woman…

The young woman in their row disentangled herself from the wolf across the aisle and stubbed out her cigarette…

[Tooly] took a proper look at the woman in their row: blonde hair in a ponytail on the side of her head, acid-washed jeans with ankle zips. The mysteries of the adult female – all sophistication and bewildering toiletries – intrigued Tooly…. The woman rolled a pink scrunchie off her wrist, gathering Tooly’s chaotic hair and producing a side ponytail that matched her own…

‘Your hair looks like a pineapple that fell over,’ [Paul] told Tooly. The woman in the aisle, with the identical style, blushed and turned away, ignoring them for the rest of the flight.




observations: A few years ago Tom Rachman wrote a marvellous book called The Imperfectionists (on the blog here) – it was a set of linked short stories about an international newspaper based in Rome, and one of the best books about journalism I have ever read. So I was very keen to read his next novel, just published, and it didn’t disappoint (though I still like the first one best). 


It’s a very different matter, and quite hard to describe without spoilers. There are three separate time strands, each featuring the young girl/woman Tooly: in 1988 as above, 1999, and 2011. In each she is accompanied by people whose relation to her is not at all clear – as a child she is wandering the world with random adults. As a 20 year old she seems to be involved in some kind of con games. Ten years later she is tracking down these people, initially from a small secondhand bookshop in a village in Wales. As you work your way through the book you keep changing your mind about what is going on, and there are various surprises along the way. Rachman is very good (both books) at dialogue, particularly inconsequential conversations, and also the honest inner thoughts of people. I really enjoyed this book, though it is hard to say what it is about, or what category it falls into. The meaning of that title is also open to debate – world events are always happening just offstage, or whispers in the background in a café, but perhaps the great powers are actually the key people in Tooly’s life, or her idea of their character traits.

The scene above is completely peripheral to the book, but I liked the idea of 1988 fashions, and particularly hairstyles, which I had been discussing with TracyK in the comments to this entry. I loved the way Rachman described this slight interaction, that very current hairstyle, and the detail of the scrunchie on the young woman’s wrist. And I was delighted to have an excuse to use this picture, which is an advert for LA Gear, an 80s brand of trainers/sneakers for people whose exercise was going to consist of going to an aerobics class then hanging out in the juice bar after.


ADDED LATER: The paper version of this book has the best jacket copy/blurb I've seen this year: it is so good that I am going to reproduce it here to persuade you to read Rachman.

High-quality intellectual! Yes, I mean you! You are thinking: What is Rise & Fall of Great Powers? Is history book? No! Is book for give big muscles? No, no! (After read this book, you still contain only small muscles. Sorry.) It is NOVEL about entire of world in last quarter-century, from end of Cold War, to up and down of America power, to tech revolution of today. But mostly, is novel about my favourite person, Tooly Zylberberg, and secrets of her life.

I am careful now - danger I say too much. I give only bit more: Tooly is bookseller in countryside of Wales. Always, she is reading. But one story she never understand: story of her past. When she is girl, strange items happen. She is taken away, around Asia, Europe, America, for many years with mystery persons. Why for? I cannot say on back of book!

One of mystery persons is me, Humphrey, old man from Russia who cheats in Ping-Pong and eats avocados. There is Sarah, who drives us crazy, and not in good way. Also, there is Duncan and Fogg and potbelly pig. And there is Venn, who is most mystery person of all.

The boy who write this book, his name is Tom Rachman. Maybe you hear of his first novel, The Imperfectionists? Bestseller book, publish in many language. Rise & Fall is very beauty follow-up. When you read it, you visit late Eighties, also Year 2000, also today; you see Bangkok, you see Brooklyn, you see bordertowns - also many places that are not begin with letter 'B'.

What novel this is! Not for trivial beings, but I don't worry: just to look at you, I can tell you have very large brain. So, what you wait?

10 comments:

  1. Moira, I skimmed over your review as this is very next on my list. I'm currently more than halfway through Rachman's "The Imperfectionists" based on journalists working for a newspaper in Rome. I will come back and re-read your views on what I think is going to be a good book to read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved the Imperfectionists, Prashant, as I said above - I hope you enjoy it too. This is very different, but still has his strange, slightly off-beat way of looking at people.

      Delete
  2. I'm having high school panic flashbacks now I've read about that scrunchie. I don't think I can relive the 80s yet. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You made me laugh, Vicki. I suppose there are *some* people who love their memories of High School....? I really enjoy finding the pictures when the 80s come up, though not longing for these styles to come back.

      Delete
  3. Moira - This one sounds almost like one of those 'slice of life' novels. And I love that '80s feel of the snippet you've shared. It may be completely peripheral to the novel, but it brings back memories for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, this book is very good on its time periods. I often find a multiple time scheme confusing, but Rachman is very good at keeping you straight on what the date is.

      Delete
  4. Love your enthusiasm - not tempting me though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the 80s fashions and scrunchie obviously didn't speak to you....

      Delete
  5. That is a great image for the late 1980's. I do remember L.A. Gear footwear and did not realize it was that long ago.

    I am on the fence about this book. Sounds good, but pretty long. I will put it on a maybe list, and maybe it will show up at the book sale eventually.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See if it turns up Tracy.... leave it to fate.
      I had my own pair of LAGear sneakers in the 80s, I remember them well, they were very aesthetically pleasing.

      Delete