When James Wood of The New Yorker spends thousands of words to praise a novel, you kind of have to give it a read. Unfortunately, it turns out that apparently I do not have the same taste as writers from The New Yorker. You live and learn, eh?
Told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, In The Light of What We Know is the debut novel by author Zia Haider Rahman, which tells the epic tale of Zafar, a friend he hasn’t seen in years. Set just after the GFC, In The Light of What We Know spans multiple countries, an entire lifetime, and the effects that politics, mathematics and money can have on an individual. Though it deals with the economic climate of this time, as well as race (in particular, the confusion surrounding Pakistan), In The Light of What We Know largely explores the concept of class and money – and what these societal expectations can do to a person.
Spanning more than 500 pages and delving into everything from the Pakistan/India civil war to mathematical philosophy, needless to say Rahman’s debut novel is an epic. And yet while the writing is superb, and clearly some very hard-to-please critics are impressed, In The Light of What We Know distinctly gave off the impression that Rahman had bitten off more than he can chew. Though Rahman does successfully weave the many different topics, theories and storylines, it still essentially lacked something vital – as though Rahman was perhaps trying a little too hard.
For example, each chapter begins with multiple quotations, spanning politics, present day economics and rape throughout the Pakistan war. The character, Zafar, routinely veers off from retelling his story as he brings up an obscure mathematical theorem or a previously unheard of philosophy. And though each of these facts may have had some inherent purpose to the overall story arch, all I could keep thinking was ‘why? Why are we going through this again?’ More than anything it felt as though Rahman was cramming in all this information so that the reader knew he was smart. Now considering this his bio on the back cover tells us that he went to Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, this seems a tad unnecessary. We have already come to the conclusion that he must be at least a tad brilliant. And though I’m sure it must have been a great feeling to cram all this knowledge into a coherent story, the end result is what I’ve previously stated…it simply felt as though Rahman had taken on too much.
The other important component of why I didn’t particularly enjoy In The Light of What We Know is that it lacked heart. Like with all stories, but particularly long epics that span hundreds of pages and tens of years, you want to be invested in the characters that you’re reading. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is one example – after completing the novel, after weeks of reading it, I felt as though I had entered the mind of Theo and it felt almost strange when I went onto reading the next book, with an unfamiliar narrator. In The Light of What We Know lacked this: yes, we are being told about the story of Zafar’s life – but why should we be invested in it? Yet rather than wait with bated breath, I trudged through the novel wondering when I would feel a connection to Zafar, or even the narrator, only to be sidetracked about bizarre tidbits of information that got in the way of any emotional connection.
Lastly, I did not enjoy the characters of In The Light of What We Know, and while I have touched on this with Zafar, I’m particularly referring to Emily – a third party character that we never formally ‘meet’, whom the whole novel largely seems to be centred around. Considering that Zafar’s life trajectory is due largely because of this woman, Rahman strangely paints her as a wholly unlikeable human being. Though she is apparently very smart, well connected and wealthy, she also seems to be cold, heartless and manipulative. Not to mention that there is never really any distinct reason why her and Zafar have so many problems (or kept going back to one another), aside from the overall illusion that ‘class’ stood between them.
Personally, I did not enjoy In The Light of What We Know, but from what I’ve gathered, opinions are distinctly divided – you’ll either love it and decree that Zia Haider Rahman is the next David Foster Wallace (ideally without the early death), or you’ll yawn and wonder why you took the advice of the guy at the book story, just like I did.
Have you read In The LIght of What We Know? Were you a fan? Let me know!