Book review, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman


Tom Rachman

Text, $29.99


“It’s not as good as his first,” says the publicist. Stop! Some opinions, especially negative, are not welcome. Anyway, it’s not a question of good versus bad. It’s different. Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfectionists was a satire on journalism and received a global hurrah! His second, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, is about identity and family. The Great American Odyssey.

He gambles that we care about the Yankee Tooly Zylberberg, 30, stuck in the wilds of Wales in her failing second-hand book shop, wondering how she got there. For a while it’s touch and go, to-ing and fro-ing from one decade to the next, whizzing round the world like a travelogue, pontificating on life’s meaning. But then it clicks. 


People around her, and their effect on her, fall into place like a satisfying jigsaw, and the question of what will happen to Tooly finally makes sense. (Rachman says she is not his sister Emily, who gave him lots of help and to whom he dedicates the novel, so she probably is. The book is crammed with this sort of reverse-thinking, and it’s catching.) 

We meet Fogg, who works in the shop with Tooly, and Humphrey, a Russian emigre who reads all day and teaches her to play chess. There’s Sarah the flighty dresser; how does she fit in? And Paul, is he her father? And Duncan who she meets bursting into his New York apartment pretending she lived there as a child. There’s a shadiness over them all but none more so than Venn, a charmer and con (plot spoiler!) who from the age of 10 to 21 grooms her mentally into another him. 

Rachman has a marvellous time pinpointing the power play that’s going on in these lives. (Are we all like this, really? Gosh, it’s such hard work, no time at all for reading books, another raison d’etre for the novel). And the rise and fall of great global powers (Russia, China, America, England) he slips into with witty ferocity. There is nothing and no-one, world leaders included, he doesn’t have a biting view on. So it’s a political novel too. 

All the time Tooly is progressing in the quest of discovering her true self. From Britain to Bangkok to Brooklyn we bounce with her and the end when it comes is so cruel it’s laughable. Bring on the third masterpiece.