A joyously intelligent and entertaining novel by a writer that is fast becoming one of my favourites. In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is, Tom Rachman skips between a few decades and continents. He traces the tumultuous life of Tooley Zylberberg, an American woman whose childhood was juggled by a small group of eccentrics, through flitting cities, that may be her guardians or her kidnappers. Having found herself a calm life running a failing bookshop in a sleepy Welsh town, Tooley is pulled back to her old friends and goes to New York to revisit her past.
Tooley’s old friend, Humphrey – a dusty chess-player who speaks of Locke and Hume as old friends and spends his days reading and ranting – is now elderly and fading in a bedsit in New York. Humphrey’s thick Russian accent has disappeared and Tooley finds herself caught in the domestic troubles of Duncan, her ex-boyfriend, and his stresses of a law career, an exasperated wife and three children.
It’s from here that flashbacks to Humphrey’s paternalistic coaching of Tooley at nine year’s old are half-explained: over a chessboard during a chaotic house party in Bangkok, and a temper tantrum by an older companion, Sararh, who flits in and out, in Italy on Tooley’s 21st. Tooley’s Matilda-like precociousness is nurtured by a mysterious jet-setter, Venn, to teach her how to con travellers out of cash at train stations and to talk her way into people’s homes.
Tooley passes through each scene observing everything and revealing little. Along with making the narrative a mystery for the audience to piece together, it also makes the protagonist endearing. Her studious lack of attachment to others and the instilled conviction of the logic of not being able to trust anyone increase the quiet pain of the disappointments thrown at her by her carers.
As the title suggests, amongst these concerns are discussions about politics and power, Humphrey claims that he was ‘cornered by history’ in the 20th Century and isn’t willing to meet the 21st. Tooley reluctantly gets a mobile phone in 2011 and her ex-boyfriend finds the only release from his family is rowing with TV pundits in the living room. From a bookseller anticipating revolution in a remote Welsh town to friends getting in an argument over Iraq in a hospital room as one is dying of cancer, Rachman throws in big ideas and never shies away from their insignificance.
Just as The Imperfectionists beautifully demonstrated, Rachman writes characters and day to day observations that make his works excellent companions. Rachman is in no rush to reveal the strange stages of Tooley’s life and creates marvellous characters whose dialogue, ideas and gestures are instantly recognisable and hugely entertaining. Unlike works that are intelligent enough to be considered ‘literary fiction’, Rachmann creates a wide host of characters and events as opposed to focusing on a select few narrative elements.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has a far more ambitious narrative than The Imperfectionists and doesn’t possess the sense of space and setting that Rachman portrayed in his debut work. By rolling out Tooley’s life episodically, the reader feels as suspended as Tooley was growing up on multiple continents with people passing through her life. The narrative structure may not be as tightly woven as The Imperfectionists, but the last act captures the illusions of childhood and their impact on adulthood perfectly. As the pieces that Rachman presents fit together towards the end, the narrative speeds up for a finish that is poignant without indulging in sentiment. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is an absolute treat of a novel by a writer whose work should be followed avidly.