Every so often, a novel comes along that is technically imperfect, but highly enjoyable nonetheless. Tom Rachman’s second effort falls into this category. With The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, the Vancouver-raised author, who now makes his home in his birthplace of London, England, solidifies his standing as a writer of great character-driven stories.
At the centre of Rachman’s cast of misfits and oddballs is Tooly Zylberberg, a woman in her early thirties living in a tiny village in Wales, where she owns a largely unfrequented bookstore. Tooly spends her time reading in the snug at the back of the store, taking restorative hikes in the nearby Black Mountains, and chatting with her employee, Fogg, whose sole purpose for coming to work seems to be the opportunity to carry on a conversation.
Though we know very little about Tooly’s history for much of the book – including the identity of her father (though three male protagonists are set up as possibilities, and Tooly herself knows) – Rachman provides comprehensive biographies for the other characters. There’s Paul, a quiet, furtive man who is 10-year-old Tooly’s caregiver in flashbacks to 1988 Bangkok; Humphrey Ostropoler, an eccentric but lovable curmudgeon who claims to have spent time in a Russian gulag and appears to have been Tooly’s guardian in flashbacks to 1999 New York City; and Venn, a handsome, charismatic con man (is there any other kind?) who drifts in and out of Tooly’s life over the course of a decade, teaching her some tricks of the trade and earning her undying devotion along the way. Then there’s Sarah, who is, to be blunt, an awful human being. Self-absorbed, manipulative, and transparently in it only for herself, Sarah turns out to be Tooly’s mother, though the term hardly applies given her lack of involvement in her daughter’s life.
Within the first 30-odd pages, Rachman performs the multi-faceted feat of introducing the novel’s significant characters, laying the groundwork for Tooly’s story, and causing the reader to become completely invested in it. Tooly is quirky but likeable, and the tidbits of her life are intriguing. Who is this woman? Rachman hints at her loneliness and burgeoning dependence on alcohol, both of which play a part in bringing her past crashing to the forefront when, drunk and trolling the Internet, she receives a Facebook message from her ex-boyfriend Duncan. “Desperately trying to reach you,” Duncan writes. “Can we talk about your father???” Tooly’s father has been robbed and beaten, and Duncan insists Tooly return to New York.
Tooly sets off on a journey that takes her around the world and back through memory (her own and those of the other characters) in search of an explanation for her largely solitary, peripatetic existence. It’s a classic existential quest, and Rachman handles Tooly’s development and self-discovery in a thoroughly satisfying narrative arc.
But there is more to The Rise and Fall of Great Powers than one woman’s search for meaning. Rachman’s stellar 2010 debut, The Imperfectionists, used the decline of the newspaper industry as its backdrop; his second book casts a wider net, addressing everything from the demise of independent bookselling to society’s dependence on technology. At any given moment, a character may launch into a tirade on capitalism, religion, Soviet politics, or the failures of modern democracy. “The West isn’t collapsing,” says Venn late in the novel. “Empires don’t crumble like they used to. Westerners are just in a bad mood.”
If there is any great fault in the book, it is Rachman’s tendency to editorialize. The result is that the reader is left feeling lectured to, the analysis of “grand ideas” taking us away from the action. Rachman is a former newspaper editor and foreign correspondent, and his journalistic impulses show through at the cost of narrative momentum.
Still, you can’t argue with Rachman’s style. The dialogue is perfect, and everyone is delightfully clever. Rachman could give Aaron Sorkin a run for his money penning witty, intelligent banter.
Some readers may find themselves becoming impatient for Tooly to piece together her past, and indeed, when the details begin to come clear, they prove by turns tragic and heartwarming, but not exactly earth-shattering. But by that point we’re so enamoured with the characters it hardly matters. When Rachman neatly ties up his story with a bow, we forgive him, if only because we’re pleased that Tooly has finally found her place in the world.