The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

riseandfallSad to say, since I received this for free from Goodreads, but this is just not a very good book. The characters are two-bit stereotypes, the sense of place and setting is unconvincing, the writing is dull, and I came to find myself zoning out on the bus, listening in to other peoples’ conversations — addiction, rental prices, who’s dating who — rather than return to this novel’s overpowering blandness.

Tooly, an American running a nigh-insolvent bookstore in rural Wales, is suddenly thrust back into the mystery of her past, which involved several irresponsible adult caretakers she was on a first-name basis with as a ten year old, and no “Mom” nor “Dad” in sight. The novel is split between 1988, 1999, and 2011, across Wales, New York City, Bangkok, Greece, and a few other minor locales, all of which are largely indistinguishable (but more on that later).

Tooly ends up searching for an explanation of her real parents, and for another character from her convoluted past: a predatory Canadian hipster named “Venn”. Venn has been transparently playing and manipulating Tooly since her childhood, though she is oblivious to this and worships the ground he walks on. Here is where the poor characterization takes hold. Incredibly charismatic but terribly manipulative people do exist — and thrive. But Venn, with all his high-minded speeches and beard-splitting grins, is entirely unconvincing. We have to rely on Rachman to tell, instead of show, how charming Venn is. The result is that we find Tooly foolish to trust him since there’s no reason for us to find Venn particularly compelling.

The Tooly-Venn relationship also ties into a troubling theme that runs through the novel; there’s multiple women who seem to be staying with/pursuing men who are awful to, or terrible for them. This includes a college professor whose boyfriend and later husband happens to be a student whose every element of description is used to accentuate how much of a giant asshole he is. Which is a problem unto itself. And a common one at that — several characters are just types, not people. The overworked lawyer who ignores his family. The washed up cougar who now hates young women prettier than she. The unbelievably cruel principal who authenticates our protagonist as true outsider.

The thing about these globetrotting novels, even the ones that don’t even get the locations right, is that they need a stellar handle on setting. You need to feel like you’re there. Or at least be awed or fearful of this strange locale. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers fails spectacularly. Each city is dull and flavorless and might as well be the same blank urban void. Bangkok has prostitutes, I guess*. And Wales has horses. New York city is established by name dropping locations everyone knows (Oh look, it’s the Empire State Building!). Minor details are misses as well. Describing the squalor of a college boy’s NYC apartment, it’s mentioned that the roommates avoid the shower and wash in the “basin”, which is an immediate tell that the author is not American, and it’s kind of baffling that this wasn’t caught in editing**. For any non-American wondering, we call it a sink.

Towards the very end, I did get somewhat invested in the story and came to care for Tooly, which is why I rated this two stars instead of one on Goodreads. And by “the very end”, I mean the last 20-30 pages and not the last page itself which involved an unfortunate and silly change of perspective.

The writing itself is unremarkable and tedious. Despite the crux of the novel being a mystery, the prose might as well be breaking into your house and drawing maps on your face for how little it leaves to the imagination. It does not even allow you to come to the most basic conclusions by yourself. In 2011, we are told Tooly is in her 30s and when the chapter swaps to 1999, we have to be told she is 21, and then again in 1988, that her exact age is 10. No basic math for you. There is a character that starts or ends every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. Despite the fact that this speech tic is itself obvious, Rachman has to laboriously explain to the reader that this character, Fogg, likes to pre-empt or end every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. This may sound like mere pedantry on my part, but it permeates the entire novel. The prose is how we are communicated this story, after all. When the basic sentence structure is so uninspiring and flat, it is no surprise when the book itself turns out to be so.

*Blogger Requireshate has mentioned in the past that when white people write of Thailand, if you look at the acknowledgements, the people thanked for Thailand-specific info on that section will inevitably have Anglo-sounding names (in other words, they’re expats) instead of any Thai names. I checked and this is indeed the case for Tom Rachman’s acknowledgements.

**The advanced reader copy warns: “THESE ARE UNCORRECTED PROOFS. PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL YOU CHECK YOUR COPY AGAINST THE FINISHED BOOK”. So I suppose you ought to take this part with a grain of salt.

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