Summary and book reviews of In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know

By Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2014,
    512 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Book Summary

One September morning in 2008, an investment banker approaching forty, his career in collapse and his marriage unraveling, receives a surprise visitor at his West London townhouse. In the disheveled figure of a South Asian male carrying a backpack, the banker recognizes a long-lost friend, a mathematics prodigy who disappeared years earlier under mysterious circumstances. The friend has resurfaced to make a confession of unsettling power.

In the Light of What We Know takes us on a journey of exhilarating scope - from Kabul to London, New York, Islamabad, Oxford, and Princeton - and explores the great questions of love, belonging, science, and war. It is an age-old story: the friendship of two men and the betrayal of one by the other. The visitor, a man desperate to climb clear of his wrong beginnings, seeks atonement; and the narrator sets out to tell his friend's story but finds himself at the limits of what he can know about the world - and, ultimately, himself. Set against the breaking of nations and beneath the clouds of economic crisis, this surprisingly tender novel chronicles the lives of people carrying unshakable legacies of class and culture as they struggle to tame their futures. In an extraordinary feat of imagination, Zia Haider Rahman has telescoped the great upheavals of our young century into a novel of rare intimacy and power.

1
Arrival or Wrong Beginnings

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile's life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

—Edward W. Said, "Reflections on Exile"

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Debut novelist Zia Haider Rahman is a true polymath and the novel showcases his ample talent effectively. It tells both Zafar and the narrator’s stories, eventually focusing on Zafar alone. But as Zafar ruminates about an endless series of topics - from salamanders to Poggendorff’s illusion, to why flags sometimes fly at half-mast and more, one begins to wonder whether Rahman is trying a little too hard to make this a dazzling debut.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review Members Only (1182 words).

Media Reviews
The Wall Street Journal

[A] splendidly enterprising debut.

The Daily Beast

[I]t is immediately apparent that one is dealing with a work of major ambition…[T]he main reason to get excited over Rahman’s emerging presence as a writer are his sentences, ramifying and unraveling to bring in more and more ideas between full-stops in a way that few still alive can command.

The New York Times Book Review

The book is long, but that length is justified by the effort expended to conceal his rage, to deflect the guilt Zafar feels at the violence of his emotion. I was surprised it didn't explode in my hands.

Publishers Weekly

Beneath it all, Rahman has written a simple human story about the betrayal of friends, the disappointment of lovers, and the pain of class identity, though this story is often lost amid Rahman's intellectual pyrotechnics.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Despite some obvious plot devices, this ambitious debut novel has considerable depth and scope; it will be a hit with readers who enjoy books jam-packed with insights and observations.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Beautifully written evidence that some of the most interesting writing in English is coming from the edges of old empires.

Author Blurb Norman Rush, author of Mating and Subtle Bodies
This formidable and compelling novel offers the reader pleasures not often found in the same venue...This is a debut to celebrate.

Author Blurb Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows
Here it is, the vast and brilliant debut novel of our time for which readers have been waiting. Set against the backdrop of economic crises and the war in Afghanistan, Zia Haider Rahman's novel about a troubled friendship between two men - one born in the United States to well-placed parents from Pakistan, and the other born in Bangladesh - is deeply penetrating and profoundly intimate, as if made by a muralist whose heart belongs to the details.

Author Blurb Ceridwen Dovey, author of Blood Kin
Brilliant and heartbreaking, In the Light of What We Know is the first truly great book of the new century.

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The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund

"In the mess of Central Asia there are as many sides as there are opportunities to steal a march," Rahman writes in In The Light of What We Know. "There are no sides to tell us who is doing what, for whom, and why, only exigencies, strategies, short-term objectives, at the level of governments, regions, clans, families, and individuals: fractals of interests, overlapping here, mutually exclusive there, and sometimes coinciding." A 2013 New York Times article put the number of non-governmental organizations registered as working in Afghanistan at 2,320 employing around 90,000 people.

Students practicing musicThe central organization in the novel is called AfDARI, the Afghan Development, Aid, and Reconstruction Institute. This bears many similarities to The ...

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