In the Light of What We Know: A Novel
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In the Light of What We Know: A Novel

4.03 of 5 stars 4.03  ·  rating details  ·  205 ratings  ·  55 reviews
A bold, epic debut novel set during the war and financial crisis that defined the beginning of our century

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 recogniz...more
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published April 22nd 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published March 4th 2014)
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Rebecca Foster
Race. Class. War. Colonialism. Memory. Choice. Epistemology. This is a Big Ideas book. In some ways it collapses under the weight of all that meaning, as well as the unnecessary complications of its structure. Yet I would still argue that, even though it’s a debut novel, it takes its place in a rich tradition of refined immigrant-British literature, alongside Kazuo Ishiguro, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie. (There is even something of an old-fashioned English sensibility to it – some of the most...more
Oh I really hate to give a highly rated book a low rating. When I first started reading it, I thought the writing was superb. And parts of it really were. It's beautiful.

A wealthy Pakistani (un-named) finds an old friend (Zafar) from Bangladesh on his doorstep one morning. He has a story to tell. The wealthy man decides the story needs to be documented so he gives Zafar a digital recorder for him to dictate his story to and then he transcribes it. (Really?) There was soooo much foreshadowing. Th...more
If you like W.G. Sebald, if you like Elsa Morante, David Foster Wallace, Jean Rhys, and J.M. Coetzee, you will love Zia Haider Rahman's debut novel. No novel written in the past decade has been as sweeping in scope, as devastating in honesty, as heartbreaking in intensity as In the Light of What We Know. None has examined the predetermination of class so fearlessly, and none has grasped the moment we live in with such crystal clarity, showing us how little we know about our world, the people we...more
Donovan Lessard
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Marxist Monkey
This novel is every bit as good as James Wood says it is. If you have the slightest interest in the consequences of the 20th century (wait, that's a ridiculous way to put it), if you have the slightest interest in the consequences of colonialism (that's not right either), if you have the slightest interest in the intersections of mathematics, physics, finance capital, the crisis of 2008, masculine egocentrism, South Asian politics, the dominance of Western ways of knowing, the arrogance of Ameri...more
I seem to be out of step with most readers on this one. The novel has garnered an amazing number of very positive and laudatory reviews, which completely puzzled me when I read them after finishing – or rather not finishing – the book. I admit to having skipped large chunks of it, so perhaps it is unfair of me to pass judgement, as I can see that others have spent much time reading and pondering on this very long and complex novel. However, pass judgment on it I do, for it totally failed to enga...more
A brilliant novel. Not since grad school have I read something that compelled me to go back and take notes, but this is a novel that is so full of contemplative launch pads that you can't seem to digest it all in one read. The story itself is one thing, but the telling of the story is far more seductive than the tale itself. Beginning with a narrator who remains nameless throughout the duration of the tale, I often found myself frequently having to double-check to see if it was the best friend n...more
One of the oldest tropes of literary trade is the "as told to" method. Here the narrator tells us Zafar's story, which ultimately becomes the narrator's story. It is as if his life gathers meaning thru Zafar's. Why? Why is he so fundamental to the narrator's self conception? That he is the "lesser" Pakistani? I never got clear on why I the reader should care as much for Zafar as the narrator.

There are marvelous insights here, from the mouth of Zafar to the pen of his interlocutor, into the lives...more
Susan Zinner
This may now be my all-time favorite book. It addresses the limits of human knowledge and how our minds fail us. Interestingly enough, the main character seeks refuge in mathematics, but finds that field uncertain also (the aspect of math he finds most intriguing is Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem!). He seems to be asking, if even math is uncertain, how can humans ever expect to connect with each other? A really fascinating book that addresses class and culture discord, the financial crisis of se...more
Lili Zhao
I have never felt compelled to write a book review until I read Zia Haider Rahman's extraordinary debut novel, "In Light of What We Know". My interest in this book was piqued after I came across James Wood's effusive review of it in the New Yorker, which led me to promptly purchase it.

In Light of What We Know is an "ideas novel" in the truest sense; its pages are filled with meditations and dissections of topics spanning class divide, epistemology, carpentry, the white man's burden, memory, exil...more
One of the most interesting novels I've read in quite some time. Already in the queue for a re-read. I was trying to read slowly, stopping to think and appreciate, but was also pushed forward by a desire to find out "what happens," to the extent that a work among whose major themes is uncertainty (not a spoiler, I think, to say that I think Rahman ended up balancing this very well in the end, wrapping up in a way that didn't feel like a throwaway, a cop out, or a sellout of the rest of the book....more
Edie Cheng
Starting with the confession that I was not able to finish reading this book, I found the narrative structure and meandering nature of the storytelling to be frustrating and taxing to read. On a positive note, the writing is very well done, and the author touches on (seemingly literally) a thousand different topics ranging from identity to family relationships to class in Great Britain to of course mathematics and international politics in the middle east... However I found myself about halfway...more
Chris Gager
Read about this in a recent, glowing New Yorker review.
Meh. Like most reviewers here, I picked this book up because of the stellar reviews it was getting. I was disappointed. This is a novel about ideas more than characters, about the epistemological problems of language more than actual communication. A perfect example of Rachman's focus on philosophy is his insistence on starting every chapter with three or four or five quotations! This became annoying quickly. Not only did I start thinking about his need for an honest editor, I think the verbosit...more
Adele Fasick
In his first novel, Zia Haider Rahman mixes mathematics and politics with love affairs and family relations to illuminate the way backgrounds and class influence lives in the 21st century. The novel tells about the friendship between two young men who met at Oxford. One is the wealthy son of a Pakistani diplomatic family, the other was born in Bangladesh and brought to England at the age of five. The two men become successful in the world of banking, investing, and the law. The women in their li...more
Sunjay Chandiramani
I picked this book up at the Hay Festival after reading a stellar review in the New Yorker. I was not disappointed. Of course, being of South Asian origin, having studied in Oxford and lived in the US, I was well aware of the personal baggage the narrator and Zafar brought into the story. I can imagine not having this background, it would have been harder to connect to the characters. That being said, I do think that there is a lot of universal content in this fantastic book that would be of int...more
Shweta Ramdas
Jul 02, 2014 Shweta Ramdas rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Shweta by: Ray
Shelves: fiction, contemporary
We keep struggling to break free of where we come from, and keep getting drawn to it. The balance that allows you to accept that past that has made you while allowing you to move beyond its boundaries is an exquisite one, hard to reach and harder yet to maintain without tottering on its edges.

How do you reach this balance when you're a Bangladeshi-British banker faced with the quintessential British stiff upper lip? It's a question that Zafar faces again and again, a question that haunts him ti...more
Like other reviewers, I feel somewhat awkward giving this book a bad review, b/c of all the excellent professional reviews it's gotten. However, I have to say that I couldn't bring myself to finish it. It was a very slow start, and the entire narrative seemed plodding...and didactic. It just didn't hold my interest enough to keep reading past more than about 1/4 of the book.

One thing that really struck me about this book was its relation to mathematics. The author talks about how math can be bea...more
Len Joy
I often encounter men of my age group (the not so young cohort) who say that they don’t read fiction. There is sort of an implied attitude that non-fiction is serious and fiction, is well, perhaps frivolous. Something that they might squeeze in as an indulgence every once in a great while.

They need to read “In Light of What We Know” which is a very good novel, but one that has more history, religion, carpentry, sociology and coverage of major world events than probably all of the books on the to...more
This is the sort of novel that is usually referred to as ambitious. Rahman takes us to many places and discusses many subjects: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Wall St., Oxford, Yale, immigration, class, orientalism, wars, love, rejection, rape, collateralized debt obligations, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, etc. As someone who was born in rural Bangladesh, studied mathematics and law at Oxford and Cambridge and Yale, worked as an investment banker on Wall St. and then as a human-rights lawy...more
Phil Tomson
I've reduced the rating to 4 stars from the 5 I had in my previous update primarily because the story telling gets a bit too choppy in places and as there are two narrators it can sometimes be difficult to tell who is talking (I'd sometimes find myself a page or two into a story before realizing it was the other narrator talking).

Even so, this was a very good and thought provoking read. In addition to the ruminations on class and ethnicity, there's plenty here to think about regarding the "White...more
Bob Wrathall
This is a most complex novel. It is told by a narrator, in the third person, but the narrator is tied up in the action, not an omniscient or even a detached observer. This makes the novel extremely intense and suspenseful.

Author is very knowledgeable on so many levels.

The narrator is writing the biography of a young Bangladeshi genius from a very poor family. The narrator is Pakistani from a rich family with many connections. The narrator is implicated in the recent financial scandal with mort...more
I went back and forth between 2 and 3 stars for this book. While it has an interesting and not frequently seen perspective on a very timely subject - namely global inequality and the systemic advantages open to elites, often and maddeningly without their awareness or, at a minimum, without their acknowledgement - the book felt as though it was solely written for the author to ruminate on his own thoughts on the matter and not really to tell a good story. It was a difficult book to get through fr...more
I'm sold! This is what reading is all about: taking in big swathes of human experience, learning a ton, and understanding just a tad more about yourself in the process. In the Light of What We Know is definitely "weighty" in both the good and bad senses of the word--it has much to say about the two major historical events of the 2000s (the war on terror and the financial crisis), not to mention a host of minor topics including mathematics, university life, Bangladesh's independence, the patholog...more
Brittany Bond
Such an amazing, powerful book. Worth the read for anyone looking for depth.

pg 2
'It is not down in any map; true places never are.' -Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

All this is quite fitting, really- how it ought to be - when I call to mind the subject of my friend's long-standing obsession. Described as the greatest mathematical discovery of the last century, it is a theorem with the simple message that the farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall short of the limits of what is true, even in...more
Even thought it is probably only 4 stars because of some meandering, the meandering is also part of the charm. This is a seemingly serious book, but in another way, totally engrossing (I know these are not mutually exclusive qualities). I found myself missing subway stops. At times the writing is slightly clunky, but only at times, and at other times, sublime enough to encapsulate very complicated thoughts in one piece, whole, as it were, enough to feel like there was no medium between my indepe...more
First the premise is fascinating. The narrator is Pakistani and he writes about his friend, a Bangladeshi. As an interesting twist, the latter goes to Afghanistan. The most tedious parts were about the financial crisis... technical and needlessly so.

Zafar, the Bangladeshi, is the more compelling character or subject. And I found that the parts where he is in Bangladesh and in Afghanistan to be the most interesting. (I wondered why the author had the narrator at all. By having the existing narrat...more
While I read this book I found it difficult to believe that this was Mr. Rahman's first novel. "In the light of what we know" is a masterfully told tale that spans through decades, continents, love affairs and sadly, betrayals. There are many topics discussed through the narrative and yet Mr. Rahman weaves them with such skill and delicacy that the reader doesn't feel manipulated or pulled away from the main thread since it all has meaning and influence on the final reveal (in form of a horrific...more
Chris Wharton
The complicated story of a Bangladeshi man born during the 1970s separation war with Pakistan, who, despite the British class system and other notions of Western superiority, rises from a London slum to an Oxford education and positions in international finance and law. Narrated both to and by a Westernized Pakistani friend of wealth and high social connections, the story of his rise (which is not without costs) touches on 9/11, the Afghanistan war, development aid, the 2008 financial collapse,...more
Heather S. Jones
May 30, 2014 Heather S. Jones marked it as to-read
Just read the review of this book in thenewyorker - completely tingling with intrigue and will shortly see what theguardian and nytimes had to say, but I'm fascinated by the Naipaul comparisons and reminded that writers from southasia and the diaspora really use the English language well. Hopes are high. Mmmmm....
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“Life can only be understood backward; the trouble is, it has to be lived forward.” 5 likes
“Our memories do not visit us in chronology, and the story we form by joining up the memories involves choices with the purpose of making a whole and finding a pattern.” 1 likes
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