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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 22 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374175624
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374175627
  • Product Dimensions: 15.7 x 4.2 x 23.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 748 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #81,295 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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)

About the Author

Born in rural Bangladesh, Zia Haider Rahman was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Cambridge, Munich, and Yale Universities. He has worked as an investment banker on Wall Street and as an international human rights lawyer. In the Light of What We Know is his first novel.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Len TOP 100 REVIEWER on June 12 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The narrator, a young Pakistani born British citizen welcomes into his home, his Zarfar, his long lost Bangladeshi friend. Both attended Oxford at the same time and both maintain roots with their home country, and both are making adjustments to life as an immigrant. The writing is terrific however the story is convoluted and often unfocused. It starts with the narrator coping with the downfall of the stock market in 2008. Derivatives were considered a major contribution to its destruction and our narrator was in charge of the derivative’s market at his bank. We learn at the beginning of the novel that he’s supposed to be taking the fall in the courts for his bank’s participation in their sale. Unfortunately, we learn the outcome of this possible litigation. Also at the beginning of the novel, Zafar is telling our narrator about his recent experiences in Kabul where he's been involved in a delicate situation with a non-profit organization and his girlfriend. We must wait for the end of the novel to learn the outcome. That's a lot of pages. In between, Zafar tells of life in Britain and then Bangladesh and then back in Britain. Unfortunately, it’s not always interesting and a lot of reading for some very nice bits of writing. Take this as an example, “relationship counselors advise that time to work hard at a relationship is when the going is good? The time to work on the roof is the summer.” Or, “Indian literature written in English is astonishing because nowhere in history has an literature been produced that is written by one people about the same people but for another people to read.” Some good editing would have turned this from a good book to a great one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Soraya Jung on Feb. 20 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book was full of beautiful prose, and philosophical insight. However, the anticlimactic ending left me unsatisfied.
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By MaggieP on June 29 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This novel tells a complex and fascinating story of physical, mental, and emotional exile. Its characters are erudite and entertaining. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By lecuyer marie on June 19 2014
Format: Hardcover
In the light of what we know is a fascinating book telling a story of desillusion. Zafar, a man born in rural Bangladesh, whose early life did not predestenate him to gain access to the upper spheres of society, finds himself climbing the echelons of the intellectual elite. From his time spent at Oxford, Princeton and Yale, his work for as a lawyer for an NGO in Afghanistan, to a failed relationship with a British woman, Zafar has one feet in each world. He struggles to reconcile them while not belonging fully to any of them. He concludes that whether some seek knowingness where knowing is a matter of social standing, or where others like him may see knowledge as a vector of self-improvement, understanding is in fact "not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but of ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life."
The book is cleverly written in form like in substance. Like his autobiographical character Zafar who rejects certainty, the author's writing is convolutional, making the story even more forceful.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 130 reviews
63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
Learning what we know June 4 2014
By Kathrin Perutz - Published on
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.
53 of 62 people found the following review helpful
A book that truly deserves the extraordinary praise it's receiving May 18 2014
By Leah - Published on
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.
37 of 45 people found the following review helpful
A Novel of Our Century May 19 2014
By Roger Brunyate - Published on
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. One of these epigraphs, from Italo Calvino, says something that may well be the grand theme of the entire novel: "Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world." It is an audacious ambition, and though Rahman may not totally succeed, he has written one of the most multifaceted novels I have ever read.

Allowing for the countless flashbacks and digressions (and digression here is the name of the game), the novel is essentially an extended conversation between a fortyish banker and an old friend who turns up on his South Kensington doorstep one morning in 2008. The two had known each other years before at Oxford, where both were reading mathematics, and kept in sporadic touch in the intervening years in New York and London. In many ways, they are similar: both of South Asian ethnicity, both with a veneer of polished English manners, both with strong academic track records at Oxford and the Ivy Leagues, both involved for a time at least in international finance, and both bruised by unhappy relationships. But in important ways, they are also different. The unnamed narrator is from a background of privilege: his grandparents were landowners in Pakistan, his parents met at Princeton, his father moved from there to take up a professorship at Oxford, and he himself went to Eton, the premier boys' boarding school in England. Zafar, the surprise visitor, was born in a remote village in Bangladesh shortly after its war of independence from Pakistan. His father moved to London in poverty, working first as a bus conductor and then as a waiter. Zafar attended state schools and scraped his way through Oxford on a scholarship. The differences are important because, like most English novels, this one is largely about class -- but class seen in a far from parochial context, with the politics of patronage and exclusion translated to the world stage.

Unlike the narrator, Zafar did not remain in finance, but went to Harvard to study law, and then returned to Asia. The slow discovery what what he did in those lost years and how his attitudes slowly change is the main plot thread of the book. I was reminded more than once of Moshin Hamid's THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, except that Rahman's style of storytelling is a good deal less direct (downright difficult, some might say) and he is attempting something rather less obvious. Also lurking in the background, and eventually acknowledged, are THE GREAT GATSBY and THE QUIET AMERICAN. The Fitzgerald comes into play in the relationship between the two main characters, except they are more nearly equal than Carraway and Gatsby. Indeed Rahman's technique of avoiding quotation marks means that two competing "I's" come into play. Although confused at first, I soon got used to it myself, and appreciated the extraordinary flexibility this gives to the narrative, thought slipping imperceptibly into speech, and one character almost merging with the other. At least at the beginning; this starts as a novel of ideas rather than character, yet before the end, the characters have developed as distinct and three-dimensional, and interact with each other in emotional and often painful ways.

Zafar takes the Graham Greene novel with him on a couple of trips to Kabul in 2002, and the parallels to his own situation will be as obvious to him as they are to the reader. On his first evening, he goes to a bar in the UN compound, and is disgusted: "The music was loud, the soles of my feet tingling with the vibrations, a volume to muffle the clamor of sexual gambits unbuckling over the scene. It was a scene of horror. This is the freedom for which war is waged, in the venerable name of which the West sends its working-class heroes to fight and die. If the Afghanis had been asked, would they have allowed this blight on their home? Is this what [we were] fighting for?" Readers who are relieved to find the familiar tropes of political or espionage novel kicking in during the last hundred pages may be disappointed to discover that Rahman has little interest in delivering a simplistic denouement. The novel ends with a photo of Albert Einstein at Princeton walking into the distance with the mathematician Kurt Gödel, whose Incompleteness Theorem is also a talisman for the novel. The inevitable result of a lifetime's search for knowledge is the realization that there is some knowledge we will never possess. For Rahman, the destination is far less important than the journey -- but what a journey!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The Outsiders June 19 2014
By Taylor McNeil - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Identity is a tough thing. Is who we are determined by our genes, our culture, our family, our community—or mostly likely some random combination of all those factors, and many more besides? That is the subject, ultimately, of Zia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What We Know, in which the nameless narrator and his longtime friend Zafar, struggle to make sense of their lives.

The bare-bones outline is straightforward. Zafar shows up at the London doorstep of the narrator, bedraggled and haggard. He wants to tell his story, and the first-person narrator takes it upon himself to convey that to us, adding in parts of his own life story. It’s a narrative conceit that mostly works, though it has its problems.

The narrator is a man pushing 40, of wealthy Pakistani origin, raised in Princeton by his academic father and mother, shipped off to Eton and then Oxford for finishing and schooling. He ends up a Wall Streeter, leading his firm to trade heavily and profitably in collateralized debts obligations, which as the novel begins in 2008 have already started to implode. His marriage likewise has weak foundations, and is crumbling, too.

But it is Zafar who is the central story here. Born in Bangladesh, he is raised in poverty in London, but has a brilliant mind. He shines in school, and heads off to Oxford to study mathematics. He too ends up on Wall Street, then gets a law degree at Harvard, but slowly his life veers off course. He is always the outsider: the smart, studious child in a rough neighborhood not given to book-learning; the poor student amidst the children of privilege at Oxford; the deep-brown skinned fellow amidst the pale whites; the Brit in America; the Bengali in Britain, called derisively a Paki (a double insult for a Bengali, given their bloody war for independence from Pakistan). His own origins, too, are obscured; it’s clear early on that his mother and father in London are not his biological parents. He ends up in Afghanistan in 2007, in the midst of America’s delusional push to pacify and democratize that country, another outsider not quite understanding the rules of the game, manipulated by unseen forces. It is his on-and-off again girlfriend Emily Hampton-Wyvern who lures him to a job there, where she works with an NGO, and it ultimately proves his undoing, like that of many outsiders there.

Rahman weaves many threads into his tale—he’s in love with ideas, and has his characters give soliloquies about many of them. Mostly they fit and are interesting—I learned about finance, international law, laws of physics, mathematical theories, woodworking, finance, and bridge construction, among others—but sometimes they seem heavy-handed. Likewise, with so much going on in the novel, and its framing conceit of the nameless storyteller, the machinations of the author are too often visible. That’s especially the case in the first 60 pages, which read like an early draft that the author couldn’t quite let go of. After that, the novel picks up steam, and Rahman finds his way more fluidly, though judicious trimming throughout would have helped.

A revelation at the end of the book brings the mystery of how we become who we are to full circle. Rahman seems to be saying that ultimately we are ciphers to ourselves, playing out a role that was long in the cards, whether we know it or not. What’s bred in the bone, he implies, will out in the flesh. Poor Zahar seems not to have had a chance. Yet at the same time, Rahman also implies that all is not lost, that through telling the tale of our lives, we can learn what we’ve been programmed to do and to be, and if we work on ourselves, perhaps we can find the better angels of our nature.
23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Wet Firecracker July 1 2014
By feather pen - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The New Yorker reviewer found this book to be ‘brilliantly cerebral’ which leads to high expectations. The story immediately drew me in, covering areas somewhat familiar or interesting to me: mathematics, Oxbridge, Princeton, Afghanistan, international banking, family interaction, college friendships, Harvard, Muslim life, New York, London. I bought the book on rare impulse at full price. It did pull me along as I hoped to discover what had happened, what was it about, who were these people, but with exasperation mounting in the slow meander through digressions seeming to come off note cards, set piece asides, and sprinkled with far too many clichés, to a completely unsatisfying denoument.

Contrary to the advice to writers that they ‘show, don’t tell’ who their people are, we see little of actual examples, behaviors, choices; usually the anecdotes are referential, the author telling the characteristic we are meant to glean, but “Had Zafar tried to avoid the two men or had he in fact picked a fight?” (11th page) does indicate the thinking of a clever chess player, and gave frisson to the story, making me think, and feel the edge of decisions I did not have to make, a delicious sense. Though I hoped for more ideas like that, none came, all could be anticipated; many conversations seemed straight references from the news of the day, and did not inform further than the business pages.

While the lead storyteller declares ‘I must tell the truth’, and we know something happened of a dramatic emotional nature between two in a room in Kabul, we do not learn what it was; at page 491 he simply tells us ‘I don’t know how to speak the unspeakable’. It seems this was a crucial moment in his relation with a girl he meant to marry and we are left to guess if she confessed she betrayed him (which she will have done in another way later), betrayed her country, or another man who died, or changed heart and did not want to marry after all; she may have even done nothing, and had been innocent of the plots swirling around. This deflection of the story’s drive to a crux seems to trivialize our interest, and comes across as formulaic, as if leaving unsaid the unspeakable was merely a writerly trick learned from Heart of Darkness to make his story memorable: by suggesting more than it delivers, by hoping our imagination will take over and enhance his story; I felt played, betrayed. This was a lot of reading invested to find out nothing more than I could guess all on my own. It felt like a severe lack, a weakness in the writer’s ability to carry a story. At the moment for bravery, he flinched. Unexplained is Zafar’s fury unless it is his instinctive response to danger, and exactly why is it directed at Emily before he even sees her; has he pre-judged her guilty?

This is an interesting tale, and largely written in an interesting manner: with no quotation marks for conversation, making it more like a memoir. As it is a meditation or reminiscence of one man and tells the reviewed histoire of another man, ranges over their lives, separations and confluence, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is telling, who has experienced the story. The tone of memory speaking gives a dream-like vision, cloudy corners, not a clear tale of hard-edged realism.

He writes poignantly about the poverty of the Sylheti boy, contrasted well with the blithe acceptance of privilege in the other protagonist, though there are confusions.
He considers some incidents as intrinsic to his Bengali culture “Asking questions was a form of aggression” (p51), but in my American childhood and business life it was also considered so.
Humiliations of assimilating too much into British life separate him from his Bangladeshi family in London, but this happens to all scholarship students at posh schools, to American kids in New York schools as well.
The social ostracism in Princeton, in America of a wealthy apostate-Muslim professor and family because of their politics over Bangladesh, seems not credible. Why does he go on about how the poor Muslim family of the groom would not celebrate the wedding of their boy to a Brit, when it was made clear (41) that his biological parents were not the ones who took care of him, ie it was for other reasons they would not attend. The most interesting and involving section is the impromptu dinner party conversation in Kabul, (310-326) with the colonel, General Firdous Khan, Mohammad Ahmed Hassan, Dr Reza Mehrani, where a good deal of whisky was served, ie against Muslim precepts, . . still, though a private view of Muslim people in power in Kabul, it was just a glimpse.

Is he trying to equate Emily with England – always polite, beautiful, impeccable, liberal, but withholding, and never saying sorry? Doesn’t he know that true love means never having to say sorry, as in the Harvard version ‘Love Story’ story. It is Zafar’s problem that he does not see himself as equal to Emily, deserving of the same respect, consideration, adherence to the same rules of behavior. He sells himself short.

Perhaps because of the men’s detachment from their own emotional lives, their remove from their roots, their philosophic response to life, one does not learn to care so much for them as for Hari Kumar in The Raj Quartet. The benefits they have been given outweigh the travails, though these are much sounded. Given are various reasons for their separation from Muslim culture, so not much insight is given to Muslim views, to allow me to see the world from their eyes as I felt transformed after reading Naguib Mahfouz’ Nidaq Alley, Palace Walk.

It seemed by the last page that the author wrote the more intense part, the end, first, then by outline filled in the leading ropes or threads to justify the pre-ordained non-conclusion. He could have used a good editor to remove the frequent clichéd phrases and the quotes of known personalities always ‘famously’ saying something. So many! And not the ones leading each chapter, which a young person would write in their notebook.

Others might forgive the occasional pontificating on abstruse subjects, and pompous language, and sometimes the words seemed inflated, using big words where small ones would do. Some were grating: his use of evidence as a verb “these words did not evidence something deeper” (101) “The composition of his speech evidenced a South Asian sensibility… “(47). All clichés should be excised from any novel hoping to offer a depth of view. Repetitious phrases can be detected from one chapter to the next, and both showed a lack of his or an editor’s attention, sophistication or faith that a reader would notice.

Rahman rails at the perception that “knowledge was just a social act”, that college kids were only inflating what they knew “to fill the voids”, “the root of true, rightly guided power, the essence of authority, was not learning but the veneer of knowledge”. Sounds like a caricature of college at the time of Stephen Hawkings’ years (1960s) when it was infra dig to admit the need to swot: brilliance meant understanding without work. The young I have observed over the past ten years at Princeton, Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, etc take their time at college seriously, and enjoy the struggle of learning to think and see in new ways. Throwing darts at the value of elite education is popular nowadays, and it may be attractive to question what one learns at such institutions. More than knowledge of any facts, one gains a depth of insight, the ability to hold contradictory thoughts in your head, the ability to think closely on the implications of differing lines of action; one learns to gather large amounts of information and winnow out the useful parts, to help one learn to think quickly, to see how developments over time impact on one another. Did anyone notice that his highly educated Zafar, the brilliant mathematician, chess-player, who can make financial deals, salt away enough to live without working, was unable to decipher the plans of similarly British-educated Pakistani military powers, or even grasp what were their intentions or desires? He might have learned the strict rules of banking, but not how to parse power in Kabul. Zafar’s downfall also seems to have included the inability to understand inscrutable British girls, but the required retreat in Islamabad (the colonel playing the rogue gendarme ias in Casablanca) seems to confirm the misdirection, not that his life was at stake. Zafar is being played, and he doesn’t catch it. Is Rahman showing how elite colleges are valueless in preparing one for life at crucial moments? I don’t think Rahman meant to take his thoughtful hero down. The New Yorker reviewer thought he is questioning the value of knowledge. Maybe Zafar was not as smart as he is purported to be.

Ingredients for a great novel might include that the characters believe in themselves, and whether they are wrong or not, there has to be a sense of integrity in their actions, honesty to themselves, if not to us. Our grasp of contradictory philosophies is a good deal more robust than Rahman gives us, his readers, credit for. It felt in the end that the author so doubted our interest that he shadowboxed it all out. He seems to have a lot going for him, subtlety, depth, complexity, but Please, next time with heart and soul, don’t pull the punches.

Maybe if you read it more slowly than I, maybe if you simply savor the unfolding, maybe if the subjects are more of a surprise to you than they were to me, you would enjoy this book more thoroughly. Amidst other occupations it took me about three ½ weeks to finish. Maybe all he is interested in is selling the movie rights.