Some novels are like balloons slowly being filled with air. Just when the book reaches its breaking point, when no more tension can possibly be inserted, relief arrives in one of two ways: either the book springs a leak and fizzles to a disappointing end, or it explodes into one of those satisfying endings readers will remember for a long time. Mystery and thriller writers are always trying to make their balloon pop, and the good ones do it more times than not. Unfortunately, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers springs a bad leak instead of exploding. It begins with an interesting premise, hints at some kind of intriguing revelation to come, and then fizzles into mediocrity.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers tells the tale of Tooly Zylberberg, a little girl who is having one of the strangest coming-of-age experiences imaginable. Tooly lives with her father, a man who about once a year moves her to a new continent where she starts her life all over again. That Paul is hiding them from someone goes right over Tooly’s head. To her, being suddenly submerged into an entirely new culture where she has to struggle with language and a new school is perfectly normal. And, every so often, no matter where they are, a woman called Sarah shows up to spend a little time with Paul and Tooly. It is all perfectly routine to the little girl – until the day Sarah steals her away from her father.
Rachman tells Tooly’s story in a recurring succession of segments that occur in 1988 (when Tooly is 10), 1999-2000, and 2011 (the present?). Although this approach is a bit confusing at first because of the number of characters involved, it soon becomes a fascinating process of filling in all the blanks about how the various characters became the people they are in 2011 when Tooly is trying to solve the mysteries of her childhood. Who knows the truth – and is willing to share it with Tooly?
Is it Humphrey, the old Russian who at times seems to have raised Tooly on his own while everyone else in her life forgot about her? Zenn, the charismatic young man Tooly has always admired and looked to as her protector? Sarah, the woman who kidnapped her? Her father, who seems to have made little effort to find and get her back when she disappeared?
What promises to be the fascinating truth about her childhood is out there somewhere, and Tooly is determined to find it. But when she finally does find it, all the air comes out of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers and the reader is left holding little more than an empty balloon.