Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: "History is the issue"

The title of Tom Rachman's second novel, after his awesome 2011 debut The Imperfectionists, is only slightly grandiose.  The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is actually much less epic than it sounds — it's about a bookish woman named Tooly who is trying to uncover her past. But this novel is still a great read. The title is a nod to the central idea of the novel*: Humans, like great and powerful empires, are built, shakily or firmly, upon their histories. But still, humans, like great and powerful empires, rise and fall, based on making the most of the present.

We first meet Tooly as a 31-year-old tucked away in a tiny Welsh village, the owner of a failing bookstore called the World's End. It's 2011, and all we know about Tooly is that the two years she's spent as the proprietor of the store is the longest she's spent in a single location in her whole life. Then, we jump back to 12 years previous, 1999, and see Tooly as a 21-year-old living in New York City. Then, we leap further back to Tooly as a 9-year-old, arriving with a guy named Paul to live in Bangkok.

Rachman alternates these three threads in each chapter to tell us Tooly's story — we learn as she learns about how her past fits together. Along the way, we meet some oddball characters. Indeed, these characters, as was the case with Rachman's debut, are the strength of his writing. Tooly, in each of her three age-iterations — as a precocious kid, as a young woman not sure about her place in the world, and then as a more mature adult, finally trying to decode her past — is cool, but it's the secondary characters that makes this novel fun. Most notably among these is the Russian fellow Humphrey, who Tooly meets when she's nine, lives with when she's 21, and then goes to visit as he's dying when she's 31. Humphrey is a chess-playing, John Stuart Mills-reading intellectual who is fond of calling people "trivial beings," and messing up hilariously English idioms. There's also the mysterious con man Venn, and the woman who loves him, Sarah, who may or may not be Tooly's mother.

What is Tooly's relationship to all these people? How did Tooly become the person she is now? We read to find out, as she is trying to find out also. Is her entire life — the person she thinks she's become — based on faulty assumptions about her past, and why she trusted those people? Is her own rise and fall (and rise again?) built on a shaky cornerstone, or a solid one that will eventually allow her to settle down and be happy?

Another awesome thing about this novel is that it's a total pander to book lovers, but in a good way. Humphrey is a huge advocate for the reading life, and Tooly often tries to interpret events in her own life through the lens of books she's loved. Near the end, as Tooly organizes some books, she thinks about what the books mean, and comes up with this gem, which is 100 percent exactly how I (and I'm guessing many book lovers) feel about books, too:
"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."
I mean, right?! RIGHT?!

Anyway, if you're a fan of character-driven novels told with a bit of pizzazz structure-wise, you'll probably dig this. Rachman is a funny, profound writer who is a pleasure to read on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Highly recommended!

*The title is also a nod, presumably, to a stuffy, similarly titled work of history by a British dude named Paul Kennedy. Here's more about that book, if you're interested.


  1. I loved The Imperfectionists, so I'm glad to hear good things about his new novel!

  2. Yeah I agree with that Quote about books. I don't plan to re-read them either but they sit there b/c I once did and dont want to get rid of them. Hooray for Tooly. Cheers.

  3. If you want likeable people in your reading, forget this one. If you want a simple straightforward story, forget this one. But if you are willing to go on an intriguing ride with some fascinating people, read this. It's not nearly as good as his first book, and I hope others to come match that book in quality. But it's worth a read if you like a mystery about identity and self.