For a novel that takes place on three different continents over a period of 30 years, Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers is a surprisingly small story. That’s probably what makes it so good: Even with all the flights of fancy and exotic locales, the characters in it are beautifully human, even if half of them are con artists with Dickensian names. After his much acclaimed 2010 debut, The Imperfectionists, Rachman uses this follow-up to prove he’s a writer to watch.
Split between three different time periods, the novel tracks the life of Tooly Zylberberg from when she’s kidnapped as a young girl to her early 30s. Having lived a peripatetic life, Tooly is without friends or contacts, living in the attic of a bookstore she runs in a small town in Wales. When, out of nowhere, an ex-boyfriend reaches out to her about her father, Tooly retraces her steps back to New York, reuniting with Humphrey Ostropoler, a Russian ex-patriot who served as her loco in parentis, and Sarah, her psychopathic, self-obsessed mother. Lurking behind all these meetings is another figure, Venn, a con man who may or may not have had Tooly’s best interests at heart. As the story plays out, Rachman also reveals the circumstances of Tooly’s kidnapping, as well as the events surrounding her departure from Humphrey and Sarah, jumping between time periods with every chapter.
Following three storylines all featuring the same cast of characters could be an exercise in confusion, but Rachman is up for the task. Instead, the chapters resonate with one another, setting scenes where characters are alive and well beside ones where their missing presence is deeply felt. The interplay between chapters evokes the nature of memory, not following a single timeline, but playing spaces and people off each other, converging different pieces of a story into one fluid mass. Rachman doesn’t push that fluidity so far that the timelines intersect, but still manages to make his jumps between periods feel vital to the story, instead of just a formal trick.
Likewise, the characters, which could so easily fall into wacky one-note roles (a Russian ex-chess master, a dismissive femme fatale), become more filled in as the book progresses. Humphrey, who at first seems like a cast-off from a more comic novel, turns out to be far more than he seems, and his conversations with Tooly contain hidden truths that only appear in retrospect. Venn, whose motives and actions are the most shrouded in mystery, even has a chance to come out from behind the curtain, revealing an insidious personality behind his charming vagabond ways.
Rachman is well aware that what he’s created could easily fall into something twee and goofy, and while The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers is quite funny in places, there’s a darkness at its core that keeps the book grounded. Here’s hoping his next work manages to keep that grounding while adding Rachman’s idiosyncratic flourishes.