The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is an absorbing and intriguing novel filled with witty lines, an array of likeable characters and thoughtful meanderings on literature, life and roots.
Tooly runs a small bookshop in Wales containing a beautiful little warren of shelves, an odd collection of old volumes, a pontificating (but somewhat clueless) bookseller and a bargain bucket that needs bringing in every time it rains (which does appear to be most of the time.) The only thing it’s missing is regular, money-laden customers. But while Tooly’s life in Wales seems quiet and unassuming, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg that is her globetrotting and hustling past. A phone call from an old friend sets her off on a journey across the world and her own past as she tries to fill in the gaps and work out who she truly is.
The chapters are split into three distinct periods: 1988, where Tooly is a young girl moving from place to place with her father Paul, a nerdy programmer, before meeting some enigmatic strangers; 1999-2000, when Tooly meets and spends time with three students while living in New York; and 2011, where she lives in Wales and sets off on her quest. Running throughout these episodes are three unusual characters that have affected her lives more than she realises. Sarah is a self-obsessed mother than flits in and out of Tooly’s life as she sees fit, appearing in a whirl of colour, noise and stories before disappearing as quickly as she entered. Humphrey is an old Russian gentlemen, well versed in literature and proficient at chess (although less proficient with the English language, mangling phrases and pronunciation with equal aplomb.) Venn is a charming but distant raconteur who holds everyone (including Tooly) in his sway. Tooly herself is loveable and flawed – more than just a manic pixie dream girl, but a woman with depth, dreams and a sympathetic soul.
Witty and warm, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is a story about artifice and finding out who you really are and what you mean to yourself and other people. It’s wonderful to see how the people Tooly lived and moved with have shaped her very existence and outlook on life. Although often amusing, her vibrant and happy-go-lucky outlook often belies a more mournful state of affairs. Things are not always as they seem, and the differences between Tooly’s memories and the fast-forwarded versions of 2011 form an emotional core as her past acquaintances age, dull and lose their veneer as she searches for her roots and meaning as well as examining the detachment between her memories and reality. Although these are heavy subjects, it never feels maudlin – Tooly feels like a real person, and she is easy to root for as you watch her move from experience to experience and imagine her life beyond the scope of the book. One revelation in particular hit me quite hard, somehow managing to simultaneously tighten and open my heart. Overall it is thoroughly life-affirming for all walks in life, soaked in kindness and a warmth that will stay with the reader.
It’s beautifully written, and certain passages and lines are almost crying out to be quoted aloud and at length, such as Humphrey’s theories on the link between Russian politics and baldness, his thoughts about the nature of book collecting or his brilliant description of vodka as “water, but with consequences.” I think it will become a go-to choice for book clubs in the future, as there is so much to unpack and enjoy. Rachman touches on a wide range of subjects – from internet start-ups of the early millennium to the changing political landscape of the US and more, all while centring on a wonderful, human and unique main character. A book imbued with hope that you can disappear into, and one you’ll be wanting to share with other people.