In 2011, when this novel opens, 30–something Tooly Zylberberg owns an unsuccessful bookshop in a small town in Wales. The second chapter takes us back to 1999, when a younger Tooly is trying to walk every street in the five boroughs of New York City. In the third chapter, it is 1988 and nine-year-old Tooly is leaving Australia with a man named Paul, who promises that the next place they are going to live (which turns out to be Bangkok) will be better. What is going on here, as Tooly’s assistant in the bookshop says in another context, is “a bit of a mystery story.” And it deepens. Gradually, very gradually, the reader discovers that Tooly has one mother, a textbook-case narcissist, and three father figures, two well-meaning but weak, and one fatally charming and corrupting. Rachman does not reveal the identity of Tooly’s mother until near the 150-page mark, and that of her biological father remains unknown for about three quarters of the book. Along the way there are scams, two kidnappings, a phony Russian accent, a stolen identity and a nine-year-old with minimal supervision who sleeps alone in a storage room in a Bangkok party house.
In his first novel, The Imperfectionists, Rachman told the story of an international newspaper’s decline with humour and an underlying vein of sadness. In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, sadness predominates, with an underlying vein of humour. Many readers will be reminded of the long, thickly peopled and plotted novels of John Irving. The younger novelist has Irving’s weakness for eccentricity and his preoccupation with the bad things that frequently happen to innocent people. Rachman’s admiration for Irving’s great predecessor, Charles Dickens, is even more plain, because he points to it with Tooly’s attachment to Nicholas Nickleby.
Rachman’s Dickensian relish for the grotesque and bizarre begins on the first page, with Tooly and her assistant, the spectacularly unkempt Fogg, who uses a magnifying glass as a monocle. Similarly, just about every character who appears at the start of the book has eccentricities, beguiling or trying, depending on your taste. Tooly first meets Duncan, who turns out to be pretty normal, lying on the floor of his New York apartment surrounded by shopping bags. (The reason for this is—significantly—not that significant; apparently it is the dramatic image of a boy lying on the floor that Rachman wants.) A man who lives in Duncan’s building keeps a pig, who is taken on city walks wearing a studded collar. Many of Rachman’s quirky characters have had extremely unhappy childhoods, and he shares Dickens’s abiding concern with the neglected child. Small wonder that Tooly reads and rereads Nicholas Nickleby, where unloving parents send their children off to a school that promises there will be no holidays. She also reads Dombey and Son, featuring Dombey’s slighted and overlooked young daughter, Florence.
What they read is an important key to Rachman’s characters. The shy Paul retreats into his well-thumbed copy of The Charm of Birds. Battered by his miserable childhood as well as the 20th-century’s chaotic events, Humphrey, another of Tooly’s father figures, reads histories of the communist secret police and the Nazis, or books in which abstractions such as “will” and “reason” are prominent. Another character decorates the library in his Irish country house with volumes “identically bound in Bordeaux leather, silver letters imprinted on the spine, gold paint on the page edges. Classics, poetry, essays. They didn’t have the smell of reading books; they were furniture.” Mr. Priddles, Tooly’s teacher, courts popularity by teaching the anodyne pop lyrics of the 1980s and dumps her copy of Dombey and Son in the trash.
Humphrey is not one for novels, but when he is old and sick, Tooly lures him into Nicholas Nickleby by reading him the opening, in which a couple without a fortune on either side marries for attachment. “Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money,” Dickens writes, “sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.” Humphrey is hooked, and Rachman points to the central tension in the book: the Nicklebys’ unworldly innocence and reliance on love are the opposite of what Tooly has been taught. In thrall to an irresistible fraudster who prizes “opportunities” over responsibilities, she associates love and attachment with weakness. One day the fraudster playfully (read: symbolically) ties her shoelaces together while he leaves her in a café. Tied up, she waits for his return and overhears bits of conversations from other tables—appointments, engagements, people helping people, people who are concerned about others. All of these conversations, she realizes, are the stuff of normal life, the life that has been stolen from her. The chances that she will ever “sit down to a quiet game for love” are small.
The simple but profound heart of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the vulnerability of children and the ways their characters can be stifled or warped. As Humphrey puts it, “being small is hard bit of life.” When Tooly says, “childhood is so exhausting,” she is talking about the child, not his parents. The “great powers” in the title can be read in a few different ways. As in a Dickens novel, the small and weak end up better off, at least morally, than the cynical and powerful. But, taken unironically, the great powers in this book are really the old verities—love, connection, responsibility.
That is a subject that might well suit a capacious, 19th-century-style novel with a complicated plot. But does it? In theory, it could, but in the case of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, it does not quite succeed. Too often the plot feels like an over-elaborate and unwieldy superstructure when a much simpler support would have served. The beginning is particularly hard going, moving confusingly between three time periods, with a murky cast of characters whose relationships to Tooly are often unclear. Eccentric characters can be delightful, but a surfeit, as in the opening chapters, is indigestible. Once a critical mass of less bizarre characters appeared, I found it easier to care about Tooly’s strange -odyssey.
Ideally, of course, a novel’s plot is indistinguishable from its “meaning.” In the great cathedrals, the architecture works hand-in-glove with the wisdom expressed in the pulpit or on the altar. When you are struggling to decipher the relationship between the nave and the side chapels, it is hard to keep your mind on the point of it all. But, if Rachman has not found the perfect plot with which to express what he wants to say, and if Tooly’s childhood remains unconvincing, I found the end, as she gropes toward a fuller humanity, very satisfying. Rachman possesses most of the novelistic gifts, from fine writing that never interferes with the movement of the story to sympathetic characters and deftly positioned humour. Unlike many male novelists, he can create nuanced women. Even with a relatively minor character, such as Duncan’s troubled son, Mac, he paints a psychologically acute portrait that includes a complex family dynamic.
For a novelist at the start of his career, it should not be surprising when his reach exceeds his grasp—for one as ambitious as Rachman, that may be almost inevitable. For all its shortcomings, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers demonstrates new and unsuspected facets of Rachman’s talent, and I look forward to his next book.