[I received a copy of this book from its Canadian publisher Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of this novel.]
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live a semi-nomadic life traveling from country to country since you were a child? For Tooly Zyllberberg, the main character in Tom Rachman’s latest novel The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, that’s exactly the life that she lived.
“Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.
Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.” — Publisher’s description
I will start this review by saying that I liked this book overall. The novel is presented non-linearly, meaning that it jumps back in forth years at a time. When we meet Tooly for the first time she is an adult, an owner of her own (failing) bookstore in the Welsh countryside. A few pages later, we find her as a teenager in New York City, wandering around the city somewhat aimlessly. In the next chapter we find her as a child in Australia, getting ready to move to Thailand with her guardian Paul. Throughout the novel we are gradually shown bits and pieces of Tooly’s life, which is a mystery to her acquaintances and, to an extent, herself.
I found the time-hopping to be a very intriguing way to present the novel. It sets up the mystery of Tooly’s life very well, begging readers to ask questions and become invested. From the first few chapters I was hooked and wanted to piece together what had happened in Tooly’s past. Tooly is very guarded as an adult and her past is not something that she shares easily with others; readers, like her friends and acquaintances, have to earn this information. A part of the reason for this is because even she doesn’t truly understand what happened herself.
The middle of the book is where I started to feel impatient. I felt like I had invested a lot of time into the novel and still didn’t have any satisfying answers. I wanted to know right now what everything meant and how it would play out. To be fair, that’s probably how Tooly felt too as she went around the world looking for answers to her past. The characters she meets in her life are certainly colourful: Sarah, Venn, and Humphrey are unconventional companions, all living with their own motives and hidden agendas and all affecting Tooly in ways they probably weren’t aware of; Duncan is a scholar with a life that is enviable and stable; Paul is a man whose job moves him from place to place. As a character herself, Tooly is a well-rounded sympathetic character and it was very easy for me to like her and want her to find the answers she was looking for. How could you not love a book lover and book seller?
If, like me, you get to the middle of the book and find it a little slow, KEEP READING. The answers that I desperately needed are all there and it ties up the novel very well. As far as endings go, this one ranks pretty high in terms of satisfaction.
Verdict: A strong novel with characters and conflicts that really get you invested. A relatively slow middle part, but the ending makes up for it.
Read if: You love novels that deal with personal history, want to travel the world via a good read, are intrigued by this quiet, guarded book seller.