The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel by Tom Rachman (New York: Dial Press, 2014. 400 pp)

Tom Rachman was born in London in 1974 and raised in Vancouver. He attended the University of Toronto and Columbia Journalism School, then worked as a journalist for the Associated Press in New York and Rome for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His first novel, The Imperfectionists, was an international bestseller, translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in London.

Onions Have Layers

Life is like layers of sediment in a canyon. Each layer is completely different. Its materials are unique to the era, weathering storms and earning a history. Stacked together, these layers make the geological formation we call a canyon.

Life is similar. The people you meet. The circumstances you encounter. They create the context of who you are. And you know what? You constantly change. Who I was in the 1990s is not who I am now. But it’s certainly a part of who I am now.

Tom Rachman explores this concept in his novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.

Set over the span of three decades, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers details the inimitable life of its key character, Tooly.


The reader first learns of Tooly through her time as the owner of a small book store in the Welsh countryside. She has one employee, Fogg, and not much business.

“Fogg’s most salient quality as an employee was his ability to be present while she fetched a sandwich. Beyond this, he contributed little that could be quantified. But she would not have wanted to continue without him. World’s End earned nothing, meaning she paid him from her personal savings, a small and diminishing sum” (38).

But who is Tooly? How did an American woman land here?


We learn more from her time spent in New York, a decade previously. Housing in Brooklyn with her “guardian,” is Humphrey, a Russian expat glued to books and the strategies of chess. In the periphery of her life, a woman named Sarah orbits with grandiose ideas of jet setting with Tooly around the world as well as a man named Venn, reserved and perhaps diabolical.

Tooly escapes these relationships through spending time with her boyfriend, Duncan. A student she met when exploring the city in her peculiar way:

“In a vertical city, cramped dwellings were the only territory unreservedly reserved, each home an intimate fortress. Yet they were so easy to penetrate. (‘Don’t want to intrude, but I used to live here. Might it be possible to take a quick look? I happened to be passing and—wow, even just standing here, so many memories!’) Mostly, one needed only to knock, say a few lines, enter. Why limit yourself to the outside when you could walk right in, peek at their lives—maybe even leave with a useful nugget” (32).


Rewinding ten more years, we find Tooly in Thailand, a young girl without structure. Her guardian, Paul, works on U.S. government contracts at embassies around the world and Tooly tags along. With these gigs operating on a temporary basis, Tooly never has a chance to find rootedness.

“At each new school, in each new country, she presented a new personality. It crystalized during the first weeks of school, after which there was no changing—people wouldn’t let you” (98).

The story told three decades at once, leads the reader on a journey toward understanding Tooly much like the layers of sediment create a canyon. What happened to her family? Who is her real family? How do these strange, almost dichotomous scenarios wind together to create the complicated tapestry of this main character?

Rachman blends these narratives with masterful equipoise. The reader connects deeply with Tooly, her struggles, her hang ups, and her hopes for a better future. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is not a fast moving plot-based book, but it really touches the heart.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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