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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

By Tom Rachman

The Dial Press

384 pages, $27

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Living on the edge has its pitfalls – and charms – in British author Tom Rachman’s cracking new novel, “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.”

Dickensian in flavor, funny yet affecting, this is the tale of one Tooly Zylberberg whose uncertain past – and tenuous present – cry out for explanation:

“Friends require a life story,” Tooly rationalizes. “Your past mattered only if others sought to know it – it was they who demanded that one possess a history. Alone, you could do without.”

Tooly has been alone for some time when first we meet her – in the tiny Welsh village of Caergenog where she is the proprietor (and lives in the attic of) World’s End, an old pub-turned-used-bookstore where she has one employee, by the name of Fogg, and practically no customers:

“For nearly two years she had lived in the village, yet she had no friends here. Reserve was the norm in these parts, which suited her. The place let her be, and she’d grown fond of it … To the locals, she was known as the bookshop lady, seen hiking on public paths, a little foreign – she was ‘from away,’ as they put it…”

From “where” away, Tooly has no idea, having been spirited off to different parts of the globe by a distracted but kind man named Paul until, at the age of 10, she was stolen by the restless, unreliable Sarah who soon abandoned her to the care of Venn (think Svengali) who in turn left her with the hapless, indolent but well-read and accommodating Humphrey Ostropoler, an aging “Russian exile” with a passion for chess.

We are along for most of this ride as “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” zigzags back and forth and across time and space – by book’s end, spanning more than a quarter century of world history, from the late 1980s and the demise of the Soviet Union to pre-9/11 days to the near present. In this way, each of the aforementioned characters appears and reappears, eventually yielding the secret to Tooly’s past – in Australia, Bangkok, Barcelona, Brooklyn and more.

In the interim, we are treated to Rachman’s rich gift not only for bringing his book’s personae completely to life but for doing so with great wit and a penchant for Dickensian names – Tooly, who is really Matilda, Venn and Fogg among them. But if the novel starts with the feel of “Oliver Twist” (with Venn something of a Fagin), it morphs into a sort of “Great Expectations” – and we buy every wonderful word of it.

Yes, Rachman takes on the sum of human nature here – the good, the bad, the indifferent – giving us a whole gamut of fully-formed characters, all of them fascinating, two of them memorable, Tooly, and the one constant in her chaotic early life, the gruff, learned but lazy Humphrey.

It is Humphrey for whom Tooly leaves Wales. The advent of the Internet has allowed an old boyfriend to find her – and alert her to Humphrey’s deteriorating situation. Age has caught up with him. He is slipping mentally and physically and is still alone, living in a shabby Brooklyn room. Tooly’s hope is that “Humph” will help her find both the mysterious (con man) Venn and the key to her enigmatic past.

As she tells Fogg: “As a girl, she’d been taken from home … she wasn’t sure why … All she heard were inconsistencies, blank patches and the questions surely occurring to Fogg now: What had become of her parents? And these people who’d brought her up – who were they?”

All Tooly knows is that these were people who lived on the fringes, by their instincts and wit, gaming the system, not always legally, educating themselves and Tooly, too. Especially Humph – whom she had left a long time ago, to look for Venn:

“For years, she had awaited Venn’s return. She had moved from one country to another, taken on lovers, changed jobs, yet retained the expectation of another life…Only by buying the shop had she suspended this…As Venn had done, she razored away the unnecessary: companions, conversation, affection.”

But Humph cannot help Tooly. His mind is failing, partly due to age, partly to a mugging. What little he does remember is limited to Tooly as the child he let live with him two decades ago. There is also much made here of the fact that Humph’s once-strong accent and delightfully – if improbably – fractured English seem to have abandoned him in old age. They were, of course, a guise. But there was and remains nothing disingenuous about Humph’s fervor for nonfiction:

“What he had done with eighty-odd years was absorb the cleverest minds to translate themselves into print; he’d played chess; he’d pondered. And why not just use life as one pleased? Why spend an existence tormented by alarm clocks?… If he had achieved little, this resembled Tooly’s own path to date. Her twenties had rushed by. Now her thirties were well upon her. She had the sense of never completing any stage, of failing to grab any single year and take hold…”

Rachman’s Humphrey is a triumph. His Tooly grows on us. And, once he brings the skeins of her strange and disjointed past together, he lets “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” proceed too long. Not that we care. We have become a part of this disenfranchised group ourselves.

Rachman’s earlier novel, “The Imperfectionists,” worked the same magic, making us one with the hearts and minds of a group of (often hilarious) expatriate journalists working in Rome. A journalist himself, the native of London was brought up in Canada and worked for the Associated Press in New York and Rome as well as the International Herald Tribune in Paris before becoming a novelist and returning to the city of his birth to live.

With “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” his second novel, he also brings us a keen sense of other places, particularly New York City where he also attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (an alma mater he and I share):

“Tooly meandered through the iron gates of the Columbia campus and ambled down the red-brick path of College Walk, as kids arrowed off in all directions. Might they take her for one of them? A doctoral student in zoology, perhaps, or a master’s candidate in criminology, or a postgrad in organic chemistry…”

In this way, the world was Tooly’s oyster, Tooly who finds herself in this fine book – and who Humphrey, fittingly, calls “the favorite person of my life.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.