Any novel that opens on a young American woman running a bookshop in a small town nestled in the Welsh countryside promises a glimpse into a life lived far from the madding crowd. That's the quaint plotline Tom Rachman's new noveltells uninterruptedly for the length of one brief chapter. Thereafter, Rachman returns only occasionally to the World's End bookshop and its shelves sporting idiosyncratic labels like: Artists Who Were Unpleasant to Their Spouses; History, the Dull Bits; and Books You Pretend to Have Read but Haven't.
Most of the rest of this nervous novel follows that young bookstore proprietor, whose name is Tooly Zylberberg, as she hops backward in time and place: Bangkok in the 1980s; New York City in the 1990s; Italy, Ireland and New York again in the present.
Tooly turns out to have a complicated backstory. When an unsettling Facebook friend request pops up on Tooly's bookshop computer, it's testament to the fact that, these days — even in a town deep in remotest Wales — the past and its burdens are only a mouse click away.
Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, was set in an Italian newspaper office, overpopulated with memorable characters and digressive plot lines. Here, the focus is on one character, Tooly, and, yet, since her story is disclosed in bits and pieces, there's a less-is-more feel about this novel.
Prompted by that Facebook message, Tooly returns to New York and tries to stitch together a coherent narrative about her odd childhood. One of her earliest memories is of flying to Bangkok with a man named Paul — who may be her father, though daily morning handshakes are their only form of affection. Paul works on upgrading the technology in American embassies, so the pair moves around a lot. A glamorous jet-setter of a woman — who may be her mother — spirits Tooly away when she's around 10.
From there on in, school is abandoned and Tooly finds herself raised by a strange cast of characters and tutored by an elderly Russian gentleman named Humphrey, who assigns her erratic readings in the Greek myths, John Stuart Mill, Groucho Marx, World War II and David Niven. Such is Tooly's life until she breaks with her sketchy guardians at 21 and sets out on her own.
Rachman clearly has Dickens in mind as inspiration for this sprawling tale of an orphan cast out onto the world and belatedly investigating the mystery of her origins. Tooly cherishes her battered copy of Dombey and Son, and Dickensian names and minor characters like Priddles, the sadistic schoolmaster, regularly pop up.
The worldview here, however, is far from Dickensian: Tooly's possibilities contract, rather than expand, as she discovers more about her identity. For instance, though Humphrey, the kindly Russian intellectual, embodies a Wilkins Micawber-like optimism about life, it's the news (that arrives via Facebook) that he's near death in a dive hotel in Brooklyn that propels Tooly out of her cozy Welsh cocoon in the first place. Even the love of reading, which Humphrey instilled in Tooly, comes in for some reductive reassessment. Looking around at the volumes of great books moldering in her shop, Tooly feels depressed about the enduring power of literature.
"[Tooly] considered bookselling to be a terminal vocation," Rachman writes. "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."
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is itself a strange book that demands some patience on the part of a reader, particularly the patience to allow yourself to be mystified for long stretches. Its pleasures are almost architectural: If you stick with it, you may come to admire, as I did, the precision of its observations, as well as its intricate form and the way stray plot pieces eventually snap into place.
But don't expect a wedding or an unalloyed happy ending at the end of this tale: that kind of literary consolation, Rachman implies, belongs to a bygone age of Victorian three-decker novels and charming country bookshops.