Tom Rachman knows how to create a character. His first book, The Imperfectionists, was a novel told through short stories of various people who work for or are devoted to a newspaper, The Paper. Each character was related to the others in some way, but each was a fully developed person, with an interesting life away from The Paper.
His second book, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is a character study of a woman named Matilda, including her childhood and the odd collection of people who raised her. The action is set in 1988, when Matilda, who is also called Tooly, is 10 and living with Paul, in 1999 when she is 21 and living with Duncan and Humphrey, and in 2011, when she is an adult woman running a small book store in Wales. Tooly has lived throughout the world with Paul, Sarah, Venn, Humphrey, and Duncan, but her relationships with all of these people are tangled, and never quite what they seem.
Tooly sees Sarah as a glamorous if flighty woman, who is unreliable, but is also constantly popping up. Venn is a worldly charmer who Tooly seeks to emulate and impress. Humphrey is an old immigrant who Tooly feels she needs to take care of. Ultimately, Tooly comes to understand who it is who can be counted on, and who will disappear when she needs them most.
This is a book of bad decisions and painful regret. It's a book of exploitation and opportunism. But throughout it all, Tooly doesn't dwell on what she should have done or what others should have done for her, and instead is persistently moving forward in the best way that she can figure out.
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is constantly shifting between the time periods, with chapters confusingly called things like "1988: The End", which is the 4th chapter of the book, even though there are 7 more chapters that come later that are set in 1988, and another chapter called "1988: The End." If you can surrender to the confusion and just roll with it, a great story with memorable characters will unfold. Based on the recent NYT review, my guess is that this one will make the list of Notables for 2014!
I requested and received a free electronic copy of this book from NetGalley. Thanks to Jess Bonet of Random House for making it available to me. Other than the book, no promises were made and no payments were received.
Next Up: Next I am tackling We Are Water in paper form, in addition to audio. My book group is meeting to discuss this one in just 2 days, and I'm only half way done!