When I was on Goodreads, checking out Tom Rachman and his books, I read several comments suggesting that The Rise & Fall of Great Powers doesn’t measure up to The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman’s first book. Well, if this is the case, then I better put The Imperfectionists on my to-read list, because I loved The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.
I was thoroughly engrossed and entertained through the entire novel. It was fun, mysterious, and thought-provoking with a cast of wonderful characters. Tooly and her family and friends (likeable or not) were a joy to spend time with. I rooted for Tooly, while Humphrey stole my heart. I hurt for Paul, while I loved Fogg’s eccentricity and loyalty. Sarah made me cringe, while Venn had me wondering. I can’t say enough about these guys. I will miss reading about them.
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers tells the story of Tooly, from the age of nine to thirty-two. In the present, Tooly owns a quiet bookstore in a small village of Wales. She lives on her own above the store, goes for long walks in the countryside, and has lots of time to read. Her one employee, Fogg, is a young man from the village, who is not really needed in the store, but Tooly would not want to run the store without him. Her store does not get much business, but this does not bother Tooly. “This was the most fixed abode she’d known, and she couldn’t shake an urge to lose it.”
The story alternates between 1988, 1999, and 2011. There was some criticism of this style in a few of the Goodreads comments, but I thought it was well done, and necessary for the slow unfolding of Tooly’s life. As we go along, we gather more pieces of the puzzle, until we have a clear picture of events, as well as most of the characters’ background stories. As you read the story, you will be asking yourself many questions: Where is Tooly’s mother? What is the reason for Tooly and Paul’s way of life? How did she end up with Humphrey and Venn, and who are they?
After two blocks, she halted, breathless and grinning because of her secret: that she had nowhere to run, no place to hasten toward, not in this city or in the world. All these people strode past with intent. Citizens had locations and they had motives, families, meetings. Tooly had none.
Another thing I enjoyed about this novel, was not knowing where it would take me next. What piece of the puzzle will be revealed? Who am I going to learn more about? Where is Tooly’s life going to take her next? The characters is this book travel all over, and some have unique lifestyles, including Tooly herself.
This was more than just a fun read. I quickly became emotionally attached to many of the characters, and wanted things to turn out well for them, while knowing that couldn’t always be the case. I was surprised by how touching some of the relationships were. Tooly was influenced in her life by varying people, and I think she surprises herself by her close attachment to some of them.
So much of what Tooly thought, said, her mannerisms, attitudes, and humour, had come from Venn. There was no meaning to “Tooly” without him inside it. The two were akin: living among others but estranged from everyone, recognizing the pretense, forsaking a place of their own for the right, as Venn put it, “to relieve citizens of their transitory property.” He and she had no interest in riches, only in remaining free of the fools who reigned, and always would.
This book could be looked at as a study of influences and relationships. Does life have meaning and worth when you cut yourself off from others? Is it even possible to cut yourself off from other people, while remaining among them? Tooly’s journey in the present is to re-visit the past, asking herself how she got to where she is today. Who held influence over her as she was growing up, and how? Armed with a clearer picture of her past, Tooly can decide how she wants her life to be in the future.
In the end, I was left with a sense of satisfaction, and hope for whatever is to come. And, some great quotes:
She considered bookselling to be a terminal vocation. More discouraging to her was that the heavy-weights on these shelves held such puny sway. No matter their ideas and worth, they lived as did the elderly – in a world with little patience to hear them out.
“People who must have a child to be kind are missing something in their emotional setup; they require someone’s neediness to give their lives meaning. Life has enough meaning and beauty already. Discovering that is a proper pursuit. Not just making helpless little organisms. Or marrying whoever once turned you on. Bonds between people form in particular circumstances and times, and ought to end once those pass. But people are so frightened of being left alone that they collect all these malformed relationships. Accepting loneliness is everything.” -Venn
“Underneath it all, people trust in progress. Scientists will cure their lifestyle diseases; the internet will fix their love lives; technology will solve the oil crisis. Because technology is progress, and progress goes on forever. But progress played a trick. It presented the ultimate gluttony of all: those double clicks that turn everyone into rodents pressing buttons for the next sugar pellet… No robots marched in to enslave humanity. What happened was far more ingenious: the servants became masters by their perfect affability. No microchip was implanted in any human head. People just handed over their brains.” -Venn
People kept their books, she though, 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 work itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty.
Venn had a big influence on Tooly, and was very convincing. What would Tooly’s life have been like if she had stayed with Paul? Which life would you rather live; Normal, predictable, and stable? Or, chaotic, unpredictable and unstable, but with exciting adventures and greater freedom?
*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.