Review: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Tom Rachman

June 18, 2014 Reviews 0 ★★★★

Review: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Tom RachmanThe Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
Published by The Dial Press on 10 June 2014
Genres: Adult Fiction, Contemporary, Mystery/Thriller
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon • Amazon UK • Book Depository

Following one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years, New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.

Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.

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.


People did not see the world for what it was but for what they are.

Recently I’ve started my reading/reviewing process differently. I go to Goodreads and find a one or two star review (hopefully one without spoilers) and learn exactly how bad the book can be. Then I open the book and start to read. What happens? I am almost always pleasantly surprised.

This is the case with Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. After reading the bad review I expected to be bored and confused. However, after finishing the book, I found the writing and story to be engaging and really easy to follow.

Tooly Zylberberg had an unconventional childhood. She was raised by a group of drifters, thieves and scoundrels after she was ‘taken’ from her home in Maryland. Now in her early thirties she is the owner of a second hand bookstore in Wales. After her ex-boyfriend calls to say that her father is ill, she decides to venture to New York to confront the characters from her past and learn the truth about her upbringing.

The novel alternates between 1988, 1999 and 2011. Some say that this alternating structure is confusing, and while there is an array of colourful characters, they are so distinct that I didn’t feel at all lost.

While the story is a mystery, at the heart of the novel are the characters. Humphrey, an old Russian intellectual and great reader; Sarah – a flighty and flirtatious groupie; Paul – a rather odd bird enthusiast; Venn – the mysterious and charismatic leader of the group, and many others you will love and/or hate.

It is interesting to follow Tooly through her discoveries and you realise that events from her childhood did not actually happen as she remembered them. The fallibility of memory, especially when we were young, is a core theme of the book. How well do we really know the people who raised us?

This is an enjoyable read with some breath-taking prose and philosophical ideas.

four-stars – One for the Thinkers

Natasha lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and son. She is a self confessed bibliophile who enjoys literature and adult fiction. She also loves travelling and aims to visit 40 countries by the time she is 40 (current count 36).

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