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In the Light of What We Know: A Novel Kindle Edition
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|Length: 571 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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“In the Light of What We Know” may defy a one-sentence description of what it’s about. It is the story of a man in his 30s named Zafar, born in Bangladesh and whose family settles in London. The story is told by his (never named in the story) friend of the same age, who comes from a distinguished Pakistani family and who was raised by his academic parents in settings like Princeton and Oxford. The two friends attended Oxford at the same time, and their friendship extends across their professional careers in finance/law (Zafar) and finance (the narrator).
The story extends across time – the creation of Bangladesh, Sept. 11, the financial meltdown of 2008, the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces, the growth of financial markets in the 1990s. It extends cross their personal lives – their relationships with their parents, the narrator’s failing marriage, Britain’s class structure, and Zafar’s long running relationship with a young British woman from well beyond his own class. It also extends across their identities – who they are, where they come from, the displacement felt by expats in a foreign culture. And it extends into academics, and specifically the realm of mathematics and the sciences.
A significant thing about the novel is how Rahman wraps all of these story extensions together, so closely interweaving them that the personal becomes the geopolitical becomes the historical and the cultural. I read the story as closely as I did because I wanted to miss nothing. And I read it with the understanding that my eyes are Western, and “everything seen by the West is seen through the West.”
This interweaving of the story lines is also about identity, and what kind of personal identity we can have in the kind of world we live in. The fact that the narrator remains unnamed, and that we only know Zafar by that one name alone, keeps raising this question of identity. Underscoring this is how Zafar is the child of a rape by a Pakistani soldier during the war for independence in Bangladesh, he’s not raised by his mother, he moves to a foreign culture (Britain), and by sheer merit alone rises from a lower-class immigrant upbringing into the British educational stratosphere. After a stint on Wall Street, he goes to Harvard law school.
What happens in Afghanistan will turn out to be pivotal, not only for the overall movement of the story but for Zafar’s personal life as well. It may be difficult for any Westerner to read how this part of the story develops, but it is full of surprises and shows us a part of who we are.
Some of the story of Zafar is drawn from Rahman’s own life. Rahman was born in rural Bangladesh, raised in Britain, and educated in Britain, Germany, and the United States. He’s worked as an investment banker (and thus in the book we get an explanation of the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008) and as both a corporate and human rights attorney. This novel is Rahman’s first, and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary award.
“In the Light of What We Know” is a sobering story, a marvelous story, a story that makes one confront who he or she is and how we incompletely understand our world.
The only mild complaint I have is with the ending. I’m not one of those who demand all loose ends neatly tied up to feel satisfied with the end of a literary novel. Quite contrary I sometimes feel like letting certain details left unfinished is just as effective. However, in this book some of the details left unsaid seem a bit too big to be ignored. I won’t go into great detail here as I don’t want to spoil it for others. I thought Rahman did a great job of forcefully propelling the plot forward and it felt like we were being moved to a big dramatic ending, in that sense I almost felt like I was watching a movie rather than reading a book, but end rather felt abrupt and was more of a fizzle than a bang. Still I would highly recommend this book as for five hundred plus pages I was completely enthralled with the story and the writing that Rahman presented. I will look forward to his follow up to this.