The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

riseandfallAs I said in my last review, this is one of two novels that I picked up and read within a day of each other because I couldn’t resist the fact that both were set in bookstores. Like Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Rachman’s new novel starts off with a somewhat quirky, reserved protagonist who runs a failing bookstore in an isolated community, trying to peddle paper-and-ink books in a world gone increasingly digital.

There the similarity ends, however, since The Storied Life takes place largely within or near A.J. Fikry’s Island Books bookstore, while the World’s End bookstore owned by Tooly Zylberberg in Rise and Fall is only the jumping-off place for her adventures. World’s End, described so lovingly by the author that it sounds like everyone’s dream bookstore, is where this eccentric woman in her early thirties has wound up in the year 2011, after a turbulent childhood and youth. But it’s also the place Tooly leaves early in the novel on a quest to understand her own past, and for much of the story it’s doubtful whether she, or the narrative, will ever come back to the quiet Welsh village and its bookstore.

For a novel that starts in a small, out-of-the-way place, Rise and Fall quickly turns into a sprawling epic, taking Tooly and the reader to Bangkok, New York, Italy, and Ireland, among other places. It also jumps back and forth in time: shortly after meeting the adult Tooly in her Welsh bookstore, the reader meets ten-year-old Tooly in 1988, travelling from city to city in the company of a man she calls only “Paul.” Then we’re in 1999, and twenty-one-year-old Tooly is living in New York City, again with a man who might or might not be her father, an older Russian immigrant named Humphrey. Two other quasi-parental figures appear in this stage of her life: the chaotic Sarah, whose appearances cause Tooly nothing but trouble, and the enigmatic Venn, whom she hero-worships. As for Paul, the father-figure of her childhood, he has disappeared from the story.

None of these people makes an appearance in the adult Tooly’s life: she seems cut off from any notion of family or personal history, until a chance online encounter with an old boyfriend results in a message telling her to come to New York because she needs to do something about her “father.” What father? Does Tooly even have  parents? Who are the adults who more-or-less raised her, what’s her connection to them, and why has she left them all behind? These are the questions that propel the story forward (always jumping back and forth between the three timelines) and the questions that kept me turning pages, trying to unravel the mysteries of Tooly’s past.

I loved this novel; I found Tooly herself a compelling character, I was interested by all the other characters — her four somewhat parent-figures, her bookstore employee Fogg, her ex-boyfriend Duncan and his family — and, most of all, intrigued by the links and connections that were gradually revealed as the story unfolded. Tooly’s personal story is set against the background of the changing world that all of us over 3o have lived through — the end of the Cold War, the cycles of economic boom and bust, the rise of the digital age — and these changes form a vivid background to the story of a woman whose girlhood unfolded across several continents, but who winds up at the World’s End, trying to create a quiet life among old books. If you dislike stories that jump back and forth in time, or stories where you have to spend time figuring out who all the characters are, you’ll hate this novel, but if not, I highly recommend it.

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