Book review: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

the rise and fall of great powers

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, published by Doubleday Canada

The ability to laugh when a joke was not funny had unexpected value; it produced a different life.

1988, 1999, 2011. These are the years of Tooly Zylberberg’s life we have access to. Back and forth they travel through the book, telling and hinting at her history — a history that’s been led all over the globe. 1988: Bangkok. 1999: New York City. 2011: Wales, New York, Connecticut, Italy and Ireland. In 2011, Tooly is in her late 20s. She’s been living a quiet life in Caernegog, Wales in an old bookshop that used to be a pub. The books are covered in dust. Suddenly, she is jolted into the 21st century’s way of finding people via social media, which pushes her through countries on a mission to figure out her dusty past. We are told Tooly’s childhood began with a man named Paul. It wasn’t a kidnapping, but it kind of was. We are shown Tooly as a vulnerable yet deceiving teen scamming her way into people’s homes by saying she used to live there, in a plot to swindle their wallets. She lives with an old man named Humphrey, is friends with a con artist named Venn and is followed by a desperate woman named Sarah. So where did she come from?

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers does an interesting job at piecing a life together. At first, it may be confusing, but you’ll catch on to the time machine quickly. You’ll still have questions throughout the book, and a lot of them won’t even be answered. I won’t tell you what they are.

Tooly does not seem to be phased as a child that she spends every grade in a different country or just not going to school as a teenager. In her younger years, she never questions who these people are that take care of her. She even casually will leave one for another. Perhaps, in 2011, it’s that everything is easier to figure out in today’s world on the internet that lets her mind wander. It’s been ten years since she’s seen this rag tag version of a family, after all. She always has enough money for plane tickets.

My favourite relationship of hers is with Humphrey, at every age. He’s a dirty old Russian who spends his days indoors playing chess and reading classic books. She first comes into contact with him at a party — he lets her cheat at chess and bring him overfilled glasses of vodka — when she’s nine-years-old. Later, she’s grown tired of him, as all teenagers do with their caregivers, and seeks to go on her own adventures. She even argues with him about going outside and walking. And later in life, she is brought back to New York City, where he lives in filth and poverty, to take care of him after his health has severely declined. They connect over literature and conversation — he’s the inspiration to buy a bookshop, the reason she was so educated without going to school, the most natural of caregivers. His absent mind is what causes her enough restlessness to get things straight, seeing it as one of her last shots before he dies.

Tooly and Humphrey share a lot of the same ideas about the world. They see themselves as tiny pieces in a big, big place; they can either strive to gobble it up or watch it go by.

This passage of a young Tooly alone and overwhelmed in Bangkok was striking to me, as I have often thought of the same thing:

On the front balcony, she halted, looking down onto their lane, where construction workers toiled, bicyclists, queued before a food stall, a street tailor hunched over his pedal-operated sewing machine. All those people down there and she up here — how strange that there were different places, events happening at that moment, and she wasn’t in them. There were people she’d once known doing things on the other side of the world at that instant.

Later, it comes back, as the elderly man tries to remember his life:

“What are you thinking, Humph?”

At length, he responded. “I don’t know what’s happening in the world.”

As soon as she met him in 1988, Tooly had so many questions for the man. In the middle of a Russian history lesson he started without a prompt, she asks, “Humphrey, where do you keep your books?” He stands abruptly, walks past her, goes to the closet and yanks open the door, letting books topple onto the floor.

“Books,” he said, “are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet.”

“At my house, we put clothes in the closets.”

He sneered at this misapplication of furniture. “But where you keep literature?”

Nobody in Tooly’s life is as good of an influence on her as Humphrey. You’ll instantly be skeptical of Paul, Venn and Sarah. Who are they and why are they leading a child through countries for the fun of it? Even Duncan — a former boyfriend and new-found sort-of friend, will not be very likable. Duncan doesn’t like his own son, Mac, but Tooly sees her young naive self in him and takes him under her wing. Fogg, the Welsh bookstore clerk, will crack you up, though. And it is, without a doubt, within books where Tooly is safest. The stories all around her have distracted her from not knowing hers.

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 world itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty. People might be trapped inside their own heads, but they spent their lives pushing out from that locked room.

Now it’s time for me to put The Rise & Fall of Great Powers on my bookshelf. It will collect dust, but it will be nice to reflect on for Rachman’s style of writing, Tooly’s demeanor and the love of books.

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