In his first novel, The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman took on life at a faltering newspaper, in his second, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, he looks at another ink and paper world that some fear is in jeopardy––the world of books, and those who lose themselves in their pages. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, available on June 10, is chiefly concerned with Tooly Zylberberg, an American, who owns a bookshop in the Welsh countryside and spent the better part of her childhood being whisked from one foreign locale to another.
Tooly spends her days absorbed in books, soaking up the text, evading personal questions and occasionally thinking back over her mysterious past, albeit having long since accepted that she will never understand why she was taken from home as a kid, nor exactly what her captors? abductors? family? wanted, or how they fit together. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers leaps about in time following Tooly from 1988 to the turn of the century, to 2011 and across locales from Brooklyn to Bangkok and Wales to Connecticut––often with appearances from her charismatic kidnappers-cum-traveling companions, Humphrey, a curmudgeonly Russian with a love of books and chess; Sarah, an alluring but flighty and disruptive presence in Tooly’s world, and finally Venn, a smooth operator whose own outlook on life sets the course for Tooly’s personality and need to keep herself apart from others.
When an ominous message from her long-lost boyfriend, Duncan, pulls Tooly away from her quiet life in Wales and back to New York, she is forced to reexamine her past and search for the answers she once thought impossible to find.
Rachman once again proves himself a master of painting characters with a fine eye for detail. Here he is offering up a wry observation (one of many we are treated to) that says as much about the human condition as it does about Tooly’s worldview:
People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained the past––the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one’s intellect, whether the work itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty. People might be trapped inside their own heads, but they spent their lives pushing out from that locked room. It was why people produced children, why they cared about land, why nothing felt equal to one’s own bed after a long trip.
Across disparate times and locations we follow Tooly and those in her life, though many intervening years remain a mystery to us, we can always get a sense of how these people have changed, and more importantly, stayed the same. Best of all, this gives the reader a chance to explore Humphrey and Tooly over time: from a tentative first meeting, to exceptionally banter-prone roomies, until their roles are reversed and the relationship comes full circle. To read the conversation crackle across the page is to know the unique joy that comes of engaging character work. As the pair declare made up laws and make legal maneauvers to outflank one another or hash over the finer points of when it is acceptable to cheat and chess, and the dangers of trivial people the reader is given the wonderful vantage of a fly on the wall experiencing something that feels so alive it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the characters walked out of the book and into our lives.
Such are Rachman’s powers of weaving this tale that as the pieces finally fall into place and we learn, along with Tooly, what we should have suspected all along, the reveal manages to be poignant and beautiful, even as it is heartbreaking.
For the wanderers (or would be wanderers) and those enamored with the written word, Rachman’s latest is a treat to be devoured.
Title: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers
Author: Tom Rachman
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: The Dial Press (Random House)
Publish date: First Edition (June 10, 2014)