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In the Light of What We Know: A Novel Hardcover – April 22, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

This expansive novel sprawls over the past half-century and has as its primary settings the U.S., the UK, and South Asia. Its nameless narrator is an upper-class Englishman of Pakistani parentage, and its main character and secondary voice is the Bangladeshi-born Zafar, the narrator’s brilliant former Oxford classmate. Our narrator gets ensnared in the banking scandals of the early 2000s, and Zafar in the coterminous conflict in Afghanistan. This is, in part, a novel of international geopolitics going back to American involvement (or inaction) in the South Asian wars of 1971; in part, a novel of global finance; in referential detail, a novel of ideas; and, in addition, a novel of personal relationships in which issues of caste and class figure prominently. The narrator (and the book’s author) has background on Wall Street, and the complex narrative weaves together the strands of worldwide interconnectedness with which both are familiar. This is a big book with grand themes, and while some readers may enjoy its discursiveness, others might wish for a tighter narrative style. --Mark Levine


Rahman's novel [is] astonishingly achieved for a first book…Rahman proves himself a deep and subtle storyteller, with a very good eye for dramatic detail--the wounding stray comment, the surge of shame, the livid parable... In the Light of What We Know is what Salman Rushdie once called an 'everything novel.' It is wide-armed, hospitable, disputatious, worldly, cerebral. Ideas and provocations abound on every page. (James Wood, The New Yorker)

An ambitious novel by any measure, In the Light of What We Know is particularly striking as a first novel. …[It] is a novel of ideas, a compendium of epiphanies, paradoxes, and riddles clearly designed to be read slowly and meditatively… [A] unique work of fiction bearing witness to much that is unspeakable in human relationships as in international relations, while it is also unknowable. (Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books)

[A] strange and brilliant novel . . . I was surprised it didn't explode in my hands. (Amitava Kumar, The New York Times Book Review)

[B]ristling with ideas about mathematics and politics, history and religion, Rahman's novel also wrestles with the intricacies of the 2008 financial crash. It is encyclopedic in its reach and depth, dazzling in its erudition... In the Light of What We Know is an extraordinary meditation on the limits and uses of human knowledge, a heartbreaking love story and a gripping account of one man's psychological disintegration. This is the novel I'd hoped Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be (but wasn't)--an exploration of the post-9/11 world that is both personal and political, epic and intensely moving. (Alex Preston, The Guardian)

[A]n ambitious and extraordinary achievement . . . Pre-eminently a novel of ideas, the book overflows with sparkling essays on free will, the perception of time, the nature of memory, maps, flags, etymology and the axioms of mathematics... As a meditation on the penalties of exile, the need for roots and the ways in which anger can consume a thoughtful man slighted by prejudice, this is a dazzling debut. (Sunday Times (UK))

[A] sweeping and brilliant tale... Rahman's rich and complex debut novel is like [a] great meal... In the Light of What We Know may be the best meal you eat this year. [Rahman's] insights--whether related to Pakistan-India enmity, Ivy-League attitude or non-governmental organizations' idealism--were right on target, [his] characters' experiences plausible and compelling, and [his] grasp of the widely varied subjects in the novel was breathtaking. (Paul Overby, Pittsburg Post-Gazette)

[A] hugely impressive… and profound debut… The book's depth is utterly absorbing, its stories as real in their effect as they are illusory. (Alex Clark, The Guardian)

Beautifully written and renewed evidence that some of the most interesting writing in English is coming from the edges of old empires. (Kirkus (starred review))

[In The Light of What We Know] is a splendidly enterprising debut. (The Wall Street Journal)

[Rahman's] fascination with mathematics and the universe of ideas is contagious, and enriches the complex narrative about how we know the reality around us… [T]his ambitious debut novel has considerable depth and scope. (Library Journal (starred review))

[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. (Nicholas Muncusi, The Daily Beast)

[In the Light of What We Know is] epic in scale and reach, and pulsing with life. (The National)

[A] a sprawling and thrillingly ambitious debut novel…A cross between Herman Melville and David Foster Wallace as refracted through Graham Greene, In the Light of What We Know offers 500 pages of self-described "digressions" and "tangents" involving bracing, sometimes mind-blowing discussions of high math, theoretical physics, cognitive science, Central Asian politics, the English class system, the bloody birth of Bangladesh, Bach, literature, epistemology, collateralized debt obligations and the 2008 collapse of world markets... Rahman drives home that every story is a lie. But stories like this one can teach us great truths about the ways we see--and how much we therefore miss. (Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

[A] standout debut. (Vogue)

This formidable and compelling novel offers the reader pleasures not often found in the same venue. Its boldness in engaging elements of our contemporary crisis is bracing. In presenting his cast of characters, Rahman supplies close readings of class, mores, and manners that are extraordinary. And throughout, he sustains an almost subliminal resonance with the conventions, strengths, and tone of certain classic social novels in the English canon--Conrad's in particular. This is a debut to celebrate. (Norman Rush, author of Mating and Subtle Bodies)

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. In the Light of What We Know is a novel of startling vision, written in a prose that's as strong and bold as it is impeccable. Who's the true heir to such greats as George Orwell and V.S. Naipaul? It's Zia Haider Rahman. (Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows)

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Hardcover Edition edition (April 22, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374175624
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374175627
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (141 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #354,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Kathrin Perutz on June 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Some months ago, facing long illness, I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and was enthralled by it, a book that ends with the outbreak of World War I and contains in its pages more or less everything that was known in the Western world at that time. When I finished the book, I felt restless; nothing else could measure up to the intensity and breadth of Mann's great novel. Then I read James Wood's review in The New Yorker, and felt that Zia Haider Rahman's book was exactly what I'd been seeking. As indeed it is. A wonderful book, written in clear prose that never grows arch or hectoring - thereby avoiding even the missteps of Mann - that looks at the world we have inherited in 2014 through the consciousness of a man who is aware of the sides and angles of whatever topic he is concentrating on. A Bengali, he is from the East, whereas his friend the banker (to whom the story is being told) is from Pakistan, the West, with India between them and the legacy of British colonialism all around. Zafar, the protagonist, goes to Afghanistan and finds the same attitudes, the same patronizing views of native inhabitants that he has learned at first hand at home in Bangladesh and in the sitting rooms of London, where he, a brilliant mathematician with an Oxford degree, is often treated as a curiosity, a colonial with a brain. This is only one of a labyrinth of themes that wend their way through this marvel of a book. Through it the reader learns to know what she already suspected, and confronts the reality of confusion and complexity. No either/ors, no good/bad, we are all only partly decipherable selves, containing goodness and violence, love and treachery, radiance and darkness.
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56 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Leah on May 18, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Even before James Wood's astonishing review in The New Yorker came out (astonishing because so few novels receive that kind of attention any more, or that kind of space; also because James Wood is famously picky, and he was so full of the most beautiful and effusive praise for this book), I was intrigued by what I'd heard and read about In The Light of What We Know. Now that I've read it -- couldn't put it down -- I understand the praise. It strikes me as the kind of novel an author pours his entire self into (and Wood's review, if it got the author's biographical details right, suggests the same). For that, as readers, or just as people who do care about what one reviewer here called the "Grand Sweep Of Important Contemporary Issues And Ideas," we should be grateful. I am grateful. I'm grateful to any artist who has the courage to grapple with the painful realities of our time (never mind just of one human life), and the imagination to turn that grappling into a story, and the skill to make that story beautiful.

I've never reviewed another book on Amazon, though I'm an avid reader; the couple of negative reviews that have been posted here seemed so wildly inaccurate -- and so gratuitously negative -- that I felt compelled to write. This book may not be for everyone, but if you like some of the best writers of our time -- Naipaul, Sebald, Munro -- you will love this one.
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39 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Calling Zia Haider Rahman's extraordinary debut novel "the novel of the century" is not necessarily a value judgment, although it is surely one of the best books I have read since the year 2000. But it is a book of immense scope that manages to combine so many of the themes that have dominated public debate in our century: Islam, American neo-imperialism, and the financial recession just for starters. Or, as the narrator puts it at the end of the third paragraph, "the story of the breaking of nations, war in the twenty-first century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love."

He could have said a few hundred other things; never have I read a book that contained so much fascinating information about every subject under the sun, from ancient history and literature, via music, mathematics and nuclear physics, to carpentry and chess. Everything but the kitchen sink -- but If Rahman had thrown that in also, at least you would have got an informative lesson on practical plumbing, shaped into a metaphor that would somehow have illuminated one of the salient problems of our time. You can get a sense of the author's range by noting the authors of the epigraphs that head each chapter: Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, Albert Einstein, TS Eliot, AE Housman, John le Carré, Herman Melville, Edward Said, Tayeb Salih, WG Sebald, Saul Smilansky, and the Bible -- and that's only in the first half-dozen chapters.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By PigsFly on August 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This was one of my more frustrating reads. Like many contemporary novels, it begs for an editor. It also begs for a great deal of patience on the part of the author, patience referring to (1) the concept of creating a body of work over time and (2) not putting every single creative thought into one's debut novel. This book is particularly messy, full of distracting, rambling, footnotes; meandering descriptions of trivia; and long forays into the well-overworked subject of the English class system. None are accomplished particularly well. The main character comes off as silly and neurotic and the author as too taken with his own point-of-view. I’m not really certain what this novel is about, but I do know that for several hundred pages, I couldn’t identify a single action or activity beyond the service of tea; characters’ moving to and fro and hither and yon; and people engaged in tedious conversation focusing on things that once happened to them. All of these presumably stand apart from the main storyline and plot, neither of which was revealed to this reader. As for the two main characters, I found it very difficult to navigate between their narratives and the times during which they are speaking: is this person X speaking in the present, person Y in the past, person X in the past, person Y in the present. So reading the book becomes akin to eating a dozen blue crabs with a mallet and pick: it takes a great deal of work to obtain a shred of protein. This writer is to contemporary literature what Terrence Malick is to film: lauded, revered perhaps; certainly hyped. Their work has great appeal to many. For me, I prefer to steer clear of Malick and his billowing curtains and this author’s descriptions of sartorial dress. And know please that Chapter 11 is a nightmare to read.
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