Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which surveys 500 years of global political history, was published in 1987. Tom Rachman’s second novel shares its name almost exactly with Kennedy’s work and opens the following year, with nine-year-old Tooly Zylberberg moving from Australia to Bangkok, accompanied by a man who may or may not be a relative. In 1999, Tooly is living in Brooklyn with an elderly, chess-obsessed Russian émigré. Twelve years later, she owns a failing bookshop in the Welsh countryside.
Tooly’s desire to keep moving has as much to do with a wish to escape the forces of history as the complications of emotional ties. She doesn’t want to be like the émigré, whose dreams were ruined first by the Soviet Union and then by apartheid South Africa; or like the New York students she used to know, obsessed with ideologies of left and right. But when an unexpected phone call sends Tooly back to Brooklyn, she begins to realise she is not quite the free agent she imagined.
The novel moves between the three time periods—1988, 1999, 2011—in a self-consciously Dickensian quest of obscure origins and unexplained fortune. Rachman is a sly plotter, dropping half-clues and gesturing down false alleyways, balancing Tooly’s confusion with the reader’s, and setting both against the developments of the past 25 years. As Tooly makes her way around the world, nations and individuals change. Napster and Palm Pilots give way to YouTube and smart phones. If Rachman’s grasp of his characters’ motivations isn’t always as sure as his grasp of plot, it hardly matters. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, like its cast of drifters and chancers, seduces by audacity and an uncommon charm.