The Rise and Fall of Great Powers written by Tom Rachman

4 out of 5 stars

ARC from NetGalley – no financial incentive was received for this review. Please note; quotes are from the unedited edition and may differ in the final version.

Matilda “Tooly” Zylberberg is not a character who suffers from an undeveloped chronology, far from it. Tooly has lived many lives in her thirty odd years and when we meet her, she is running a bookshop, “The World’s End”, in Wales and with the rise of Amazon, her sales are fast declining.

Enter the shades of her childhood, Paul with whom she travels to Thailand as an eight year old; Sarah, mysterious and irresponsible; Venn, enigmatic but forever changing; and Humphrey, the kindly Russian who teaches Tooly to be an intellectual. Each taking on the position of role model and drawing the reader into an elegant web of secrets and deceptions that span the globe and nearly all of Tooly’s life.

Rachman’s characters are kinetic. Even when they seem their most settled there is an undertow lurking to drag them away. The only semi-stable character is Fogg, the eccentric assistant at the bookshop.

Initially, this book courted disaster. The characters were all lovely, you wanted to like them and somehow you couldn’t help wanting them to be your friend. Especially with lines like If ever a man fancied her these days, she suspected of him of low standards, of being a goat in heat. However, just as you start to think the entire story is going to be sweet and light the undertow grabs you and you’re dragged into the story. For me, this was the only time I felt there was an opportunity to stop reading.

Such is the strength of this story it wasn’t until the end that I realised just how much the people you love and trust can let you down in life – or more simply, show themselves not to be the person you though them. The truths of this novel, for me were sad and deeply realistic, as too are the elements of redemption.

Rachman also has a knack for observation that does not sound like a diatribe of negativity. And walking had become an obstacle course, pedestrians inebriated on handheld devices, jostling one another as they passed, glancing up dimly at the shared world, then back into the bottomless depths projected from shining glass.

It is clear why some have compared this work with that of Donna Tartt and for me, the intense characters are what lifts this story away from being just another story about just another girl. As Venn so aptly puts it Everyone’s their own world, and this book takes you further into understanding just how fractured from each other we truly are.

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