Following the success of his critically acclaimed debut, The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman returns with an ambitious new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. Along with a plucky protagonist named Tooly Zylberberg, Rachman whisks readers away on a whirlwind jaunt around the globe, through the waning days of the 20th century and into the dawn of the 21st.

We first meet Tooly in a quiet little town in Wales, where she owns a charming bookshop on the path to bankruptcy. As is soon made clear, Tooly has a past full of secrets she is reluctant to share and, if she is being perfectly honest, portions of which are a bit of mystery even to herself. Her peripatetic childhood is all a bit of a blur; a ragtag band of characters who are little more than strangers—including conmen and Russian bookworms—form the closest thing to a family that she has.

After leaving so many people and places over the years, Tooly is perfectly content to keep her past behind her. But when an old love manages to track her down, Tooly is sucked back into a life filled with people she never thought she would see again. In order to unlock the puzzle of her own life, Tooly embarks on a journey around the world, uncovering long-buried secrets that will bring her to a new understanding of the factors that shaped her.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers builds up steam slowly—the first half lays the groundwork for the revelations to follow—and readers might initially find the jumps in time and ever-mounting number of questions frustrating and confusing. This simply means, however, that when all the pieces do fall into place, it is all the more satisfying. Rachman has crafted a story in which the quiet moments are just as important as the loud ones and nobody is exactly as he or she first appears. Readers would be wise to approach this book like they would a maze: Getting a little lost along the way is practically guaranteed, but it’s also part of the fun. With The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Rachman has produced a meaty novel that isn’t afraid to ask big questions or take risks; the result is a story that is both thoughtful and thrilling.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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