I loved The Imperfectionists. Funny, poignant and thoroughly entertaining it was stuffed full of engaging characters caught up in their own lives seemingly oblivious to the fact that the newspaper for which they worked was being pulled inexorably down the tubes by the brave new world of the internet. Expectations were high, then, for Tom Rachman’s second novel which begins in a Welsh bookshop run by Tooly Zylberberg who finds a message on her Facebook page – her father is in trouble, can she come and help? As far as Tooly’s concerned she hasn’t seen her father since she was eleven, abducted in Bangkok by a women called Sarah who promptly disappeared leaving her with Humphrey, the Russian chess-playing bibliophile who brought her up – and it’s Humphrey who’s in trouble. So begins Tooly’s story in which many of the players are far from what they seem.
Three narrative strands, each separated by a decade, alternate through Rachman’s novel, slowly – a little too slowly at first – beginning to mesh with each other as small details are slipped in answering some of the many questions that Tooly’s story throws up. Tooly has spent the first part of her life with her father, an itinerant IT specialist, donning a new personality each time they move and obligingly watching the wrestling videos he buys for her as treats. When a smiling woman takes her out of school one day, she’s a little puzzled then charmed by Sarah and her boyfriend Venn. Sarah disappears telling Tooly she’ll be back and leaving her with Humphrey, who will look after Tooly for the next ten years. Venn pops up now and again, a romantic figure, full of ideas who invents a game in which Tooly knocks on apartment doors and asks to use the toilet under instructions to find out as much as she can about the people who live there, a variation of which she carries into adult life. One day, following a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and its owner, she meets the awkward, introverted Duncan whom she charms, spending more and more time in his flat getting to know his roommates. Cue Venn, now running Brain Trust, a cooperative for bright young things with big ideas. Tooly’s unguarded remarks lead her to make a sharp exit and she doesn’t see Duncan again until his Facebook message summons her back to the States where she finds a much reduced Humphrey speaking in an English accent, his memory cobwebbed by a stroke. Tooly sets about filling in the gaps, making some surprising discoveries along the way. It ends where it began in a small Welsh village, in a bookshop pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy. Always the observer, never entirely involved, the scales have fallen from Tooly’s eyes and she finally knows who she is.
Hmm.. rather a lot about plot there but there’s an awful lot of story telling and Rachman takes his time about it, saying much along the way about both history and how we live our lives now, often in arresting, seemingly throwaway, comments – Venn’s assessment of progress as ‘those double clicks that turned everyone into rodents pressing buttons for the next sugar pellet’ was particularly striking. It’s full of colourful characters, which seems to be a speciality of Rachman’s: the pontificating Fogg, widely travelled in mind if not in body; volatile Sarah, hopelessly unreliable but charming with it; the mysterious Venn, master of the zeitgeist and Humphrey, lover of facts but not of fiction or so it seems. The only weak link for me was Tooly’s father, who never quite came alive. Altogether, a book to be drawn into and take your time over.
It also has one of the best lines about keeping books that I’ve across as Tooly surveys Humphrey’s tattered collection: ‘People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained the past’ Certainly true for me – looking at a book’s spine can summon up both the world within it and what I was doing when I read it. Is it the same for you?