Tuesday, July 15, 2014

the stories we tell ourselves

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: What do you do when your unreliable narrator is yourself?  When everything you thought you knew about your past is not just a lie, but a cruel lie?  Although Rachman takes some time working up to it, this is the issue that his main character, Tooly Zylberberg, has to face.  Tooly tells her story in three rotating sections: the first, as a young girl living in Bangkok, the latest in a series of foreign cities she's lived; the second, as she turns 21 in New York; and the last as an adult, when she's separated from the characters of her earlier life, but must return to them.  Although she is initially reluctant, Tooly eventually seeks out these people to get answers about why her childhood was shaped the way it was.

There's quite a bit of intentional misdirection in the lead-up.  For one thing, Tooly refers to everyone by their first name, so it takes a while for her relationship to them to become clear.  And then, of course, there's the problem that some of the characters aren't at all who or what they purport to be.  As the story begins to come clear, though, it's quite compelling.  And Tooly is a well-drawn character.  Unfortunately, the unrelenting and unapologetic selfishness of other characters detract so much from the story itself, that even when Tooly found her answers, such as they were, I felt as though I didn't get mine.

In literature, not all characters are, or should be, likable.  The good guys don't always get rewarded, and the bad guys don't always get punished.  Even so, one wants to feel as though a character's actions have repercussions for them.  In this book, both the selfish and the unselfish, the cruel and the benevolent, just keep on keeping on in a way that left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

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