“In the Light of What We Know”
Author: Zia Haider Rahman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Hardcover Edition: 497 pages
Source: Library copy
This book is the long account of the life of two friends. Zafar appears on the doorstep of the unnamed narrator after a long absence and together they build an account of his life. They discuss many big ideas: science, mathematics, war, the financial world, the events of their lives, ambition and more at great length. The characters have broad and deep interests. Still, even given all this discussion of knowledge, both characters mightily wish to belong among the people around them. What are the consequences for those who do not belong? We travel with these characters from South Asia to London to New York, across cultures and class. And along the way they are part of some of the large issues of our time.
But if this story has heart as well as knowledge to impart, it is to describe the experience of always feeling the outsider because one’s current home (or lack of) is so very different from the place where one began life, where one has roots, where one’s family originated. One critic used the term displacement to discuss fiction that deals with this idea of homelessness – not belonging. Zafar, the novel’s protagonist, is a heart-breaking character, though at first glance he is an intellectual virtuoso who has known certain advantages.
“In Light of What We Know” has received wide critical acclaim. The author was born in rural Bangladesh and educated at Oxford and at Cambridge. He has worked in investment banking and as a human rights lawyer. He speaks with a strong English accent and I believe was raised in Britain and holds a British passport. Class consciousness and discrimination because of skin color are everywhere in this story and in life. In this story Britain’s class consciousness is chilly indeed.
Zia Haidor Rahman and another writer, Randy Boyagoda, discussed fiction at the recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids. Their fiction addresses the question: How can we welcome others who are different from ourselves? Fiction offers openness. It explores truth, if the author is honest. Through fiction we learn about why humans do what they do. Isn’t a writer’s job to help readers to notice what is happening in the world? By such a standard, this novel is surely a success. The reader will always be thinking. It is not an easy read.
Any warmth in the story seems hard to find. Even the female love interest was not loving, hardly capable of any feeling. Is there respect for the characters on the part of the author? Is there respect for others in the actions of the characters? Are there any characters in the story capable of love? These questions are no doubt tied to the story’s central theme of the longing to belong, to be accepted. But they weighed heavily on this reader.
“Watching a door close that can never be opened again is, I am sure, enough to break a heart.” This quote from early in the book describes the story. When you are on the outside, wishing to find entry and acceptance, life can be a sad and cold place to be, no matter where in the world you find yourself.