Tom Rachman’s second novel is compulsively readable despite its thin plot and needlessly nonlinear narrative, attributes recalling his charming yet overrated debut, The Imperfectionists. In The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Rachman creates a smaller cast of characters and focuses on a single protagonist.
Tooly (short for Matilda) is rather unprepossessing; the supporting players elevate the story. The tale, narrated in the third person from Tooly’s perspective, jumps back and forth between different stages in her life on the margins of society in several countries.
In 1988, she’s a 9-year-old girl newly arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, with her father, Paul, who may have kidnapped her. In 1999-2000, Tooly lives in New York City, her father a distant memory, and enters into a romantic relationship with timid university student Duncan. In 2011, she’s in her early 30s, running an unprofitable second-hand bookshop in a Welsh village.
Tooly’s quest, in 2011, to solve the mysteries of her past is Rachman’s excuse for a plot. The concept works because the individuals who shaped Tooly’s upbringing possess an insistent and sometimes sinister allure. While in Bangkok in 1988, Tooly leaves Paul, her aloof father who appears to have spirited her away from her mother, to join a globetrotting band of three peculiar, feuding adults.
One of them is Sarah, her flighty and vain mother, who frequently disappears and reappears. Another is Venn, a Fagin-like but handsome and magnetic con artist who resembles “a devilish older sibling, offering that brotherly combination of wholly unreliable and utterly trustworthy.” Finally, there is the nurturing Humphrey, an older and intellectually inclined Russian gentleman who takes up the job of raising her.
Living in Wales in 2011, Tooly whiles away the time by trying to find traces of these people — with whom she no longer has contact — on the Internet. Every time she unearths something, she feels as though “a long spoon had been dipped inside her and stirred.” When Duncan, her ex-boyfriend, writes out of the blue to tell her that Humphrey is ailing in New York, she sets off to tend to him and delve into her past.
The title of the novel could refer to the 20th century’s vicissitudes, which Humphrey complains upended his life, but also to the making and unmaking of individuals who figure prominently in Tooly’s. Rachman threads heady themes through The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, including the Nietzchean idea that a person has more than one self.
“People manifested so many selves over a lifetime,” muses Tooly at one point, having discovered that Humphrey apparently faked his Russian accent and syntax years ago. “Was only the latest valid?”
Rachman’s novel succeeds thanks to the captivating and contrasting personalities of his supporting characters, especially Humphrey and Venn. As a result, you often excuse the story’s shortcomings — its overlength, meager plot and anodyne protagonist. Wanting to know what happened to the strange people who exerted so much influence on Tooly’s life and how and why she lost touch with each of them keeps you reading.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon.