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Originally published Sunday, June 8, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘The Rise & Fall of Great Powers’: search for a true past

Tom Rachman’s second novel, “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” is a superb follow-up to 2010’s “The Imperfectionists, ” the story of a bookshop owner in Wales as she investigates her own multilayered and mysterious past. Rachman appears June 10 at Seattle’s

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Tom Rachman

The author of “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 10, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or


‘The Rise & Fall of Great Powers’

by Tom Rachman

Dial Press, 384 pp., $27

When a writer’s debut novel is as captivating as Tom Rachman’s 2010 book, “The Imperfectionists,” the arrival of novel No. 2 can generate as much trepidation as anticipation.

You can’t help but wonder: How deep is the well?

In “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” Rachman proves the well is plenty deep. The book is a lovely mystery without a corpse, less a whodunit than a who-is-she?

“My life to date hasn’t been entirely legal,” Tooly Zylberberg confides, leaving the reader to contemplate how marvelous is her name and how curious her past.

“The Imperfectionists,” centered on a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, had a structure that was a thing of beauty, with interlocking portraits and layers of reveal, spread across a half century.

The structure for Rachman’s second novel is just as ambitious and engaging. Rachman constructs a weave, intersecting three periods of Tooly’s life — one beginning when she is 9 in Bangkok, another when she is 20 in Manhattan, and the third when Tooly is in her early 30s, owner of a bookshop in a small town in Wales.

As Tooly, ever rootless, travels the world across these periods of time — a “stolen good,” of uncertain parentage, raised by or tied to a succession of peculiar men with shadowy backgrounds — the effect is dizzying, bouncing from 1988 to 1999 to 2011, from Italy to Ireland to South Africa to South America to the United States.

The Tooly of 2011 becomes determined to figure out what happened to the Tooly of 1988, and how this girl with a sketchbook consisting entirely of noses became this woman who never learned to apply makeup and whose belongings, all of them, can be stuffed into a duffel bag.

Along the way she discovers a criminal act of love and the disparate ways in which she has been valued in her life; her search explores the dangers and limitations of personal reinvention, the dangers and rewards of reunion, the thrill and companionship of books, and how we can fail to recognize those in our life who should be treasured most.

Rachman also takes fun detours, as when he contrasts Tooly, a woman with little formal education but lots of informal learning, with Emerson, a Ph.D. student and aspiring professor full of academic pretense: “For him, opinion gained validity only if footnoted by one of the university-press pinups — Kristeva, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Saussure, Lacan, Derrida, and others whose careers offered hope to those seeking gainful employment without communicating a single clear thought.”

Rachman, both a British and Canadian citizen, is a former journalist with a peripatetic streak akin to Tooly’s; he worked in New York, New Delhi, Rome and Sri Lanka, and now lives in London. He is yet another reporter turned first-rate novelist. (In that category the Pacific Northwest has one of the country’s best clusters, featuring the likes of Jess Walter and Jim Lynch.)

When Rachman was about to turn 30, he shifted to novels, fearing he might otherwise become stuck as a journalist. We can be grateful. In “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” an enigmatic character who goes by Humphrey Ostropoler (what names!) speaks of how thankful he is that he befriended Tooly Zylberberg.

I found myself thinking the same thing.

Ken Armstrong:

A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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