In the Light of What We Know

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In the Light of What We Know
Author Zia Haider Rahman
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN 0374175624

In the Light of What We Know is the debut novel of Zia Haider Rahman. First published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the novel was released in the spring of 2014 to international critical acclaim and earned its author the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary prize.[1] and the inaugural International Ranald McDonald prize 2016.[2] The novel has already been translated into Dutch, French and Portuguese and is to be translated into several other languages.[3]


Much of the novel is set during the war in Afghanistan at the beginning of the century and the financial crisis of 2007–08. One September morning in 2008, an investment banker approaching forty, his career in collapse and his marriage unraveling, receives a surprise visitor at his townhouse in South Kensington. In the disheveled figure of a South Asian male carrying a backpack, the banker recognizes a long-lost friend, a mathematics prodigy who disappeared years earlier under mysterious circumstances. The friend has resurfaced to make a confession of unsettling power.

The story ranges from Kabul to London, New York City, Islamabad, Dhaka, Oxford, and Princeton, NJ—and explores the questions of love, belonging, science, and war. At its heart is the friendship of two men and the betrayal of one by the other.[4][5] Reviewers have said that "the book challenges any attempt at summary."[6]


  • Narrator, an unnamed, Pakistani-American, Eton-educated banker from a privileged background (his grandfather was Pakistani ambassador to the US).
  • Zafar, the main protagonist, from a poor background, born in Bangladesh but raised in Britain.
  • Emily Hampton-Wyvern, to whom Zafar is later engaged, a member of the upper British class.
  • Penelope Hampton-Wyvern, Emily's mother who in time becomes fond of Zafar.
  • Robin Hampton-Wyvern, Emily's father who is divorced from Penelope.
  • James Hampton-Wyvern, Emily's younger brother.
  • Meena, the unnamed narrator's wife.
  • Mohammed Jalaluddin, senior UN official (with a US passport).
  • Dr Hassan Kabir, UN rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan.
  • Colonel Sikander Ali Mushtaq, senior Pakistani official.
  • Mohammed Ahmed Hassan, member of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.
  • Maurice Touvier, head of AfDARI (Afghan Development and Reconstruction Institute)
  • Crane Morton Forrester Sr, a US senator, founder of a major US credit rating agency, and father of Forrester Jr
  • Crane Morton Forrester Jr, friend of the narrator from childhood and US marine based in Kabul

Critical reception[edit]

Writing in The New York Review of Books, the novelist and critic Joyce Carol Oates described the novel as “remarkable…an adventure story of sorts, echoing not only the canonical Heart of Darkness but F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novels of dislocation and inquiry of Graham Greene and W.G. Sebald, and…the spy novels of John le Carré…and a novel of ideas, a compendium of epiphanies, paradoxes, and riddles clearly designed to be read slowly and meditatively; one is moved to think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain…this powerful debut…is a unique work of fiction bearing witness to much that is unspeakable in human relationships as in international relations.”[7] In a “Books of the Year” feature in The Times Literary Supplement, Oates further wrote that “among outstanding novels is the impressive debut of Zia Haider Rahman, the meditative, mysterious, decidedly non-page-turner In the Light of What We Know, a postcolonial novel writ large. The meticulous interweaving of Rahman’s fiction necessitates reading both forward and back, and makes us realize: who cares about “page-turners” when the true pleasure of a work of fiction is its gravitational pull upon us?”[8]

In a 4,000-word review for The New Yorker, the critic James Wood described Rahman as “a deep and subtle storyteller,” and praised the novel as “astonishingly achieved…Isn’t this kind of thinking—worldly and personal, abstract and concrete, essayistic and dramatic—exactly what the novel is for? How it justifies itself as a form?…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.”[9]

Australian literary critic Louise Adler reviewing the novel for The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote “My faith in fiction has been restored…Rahman writes brilliantly and hilariously about British class-consciousness… a satisfyingly and richly argumentative novel…In the Light of What We Know is my international book of 2014. It is a novel that makes sense of the past decade, its geopolitical tensions and the way we as hapless individuals experience those complexities.”[10]

The novel received wide critical acclaim internationally. Alex Preston in The Observer described it as “an extraordinary meditation on the limits and uses of human knowledge, a heart-breaking 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.”;[11] “tackles the big questions…with supreme narrative skill…a masterpiece,” wrote Kevin Power in the Irish Sunday Business Post; Amitava Kumar in The New York Times called it a “strange and brilliant novel”;[12] “a great work…one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read” said Madeleine Thien in the New Canadian Media; “unsettling and profound…utterly absorbing” said The Guardian;[13] Maggie Fergusson in Intelligent Life described it as “astonishing…an intellectual banquet...The ingredients range from philosophy, religion and mathematics to international aid, high finance and carpentry. But the question at its heart is simple: how does knowledge relate to wisdom, happiness and truth? And the story, which ranges from Islamabad to Wall Street and from 9/11 to 2008, is gripping.”;[14] The Sunday Times called it “an extraordinary achievement”; Mint/Wall Street Journal said it was “the finest book written by an Indian subcontinent-origin author”;[15] “a ground-breaking work of staggering genius” said Open Magazine;[16] The Times Literary Supplement called it “among many other things, a beautiful, anguished tirade against narrowness and complacency”;[17] Dawn called it a “a semantic and linguistic Wonderland”;[18] “a virtuoso debut”[19]…”gorgeously written”[20] said Vogue; and The Daily Beast wrote of “sentences ramifying and unraveling to bring in more and more ideas…in a way that few still alive can command.”[21] On the influential Dutch television show De Wereld Draait Door, a panel of critics unanimously praised the book, saying “This is the Great American Novel,” “Rahman is one of the great writers of our time” and “This book proves that the novel is not dead but vital and flourishing.”[22]

In the Light of What We Know appeared in several lists of best books for 2014, including in The Observer,[23] The Times Literary Supplement, Slate,[24] Kirkus Reviews, NPR,[25] The Daily Telegraph.,[26] The Atlantic, Barnes and Noble Review, and The New Yorker. Selecting it as one of three great novels she read in 2014, critic Wendy Lesser wrote that the novel reminded her of Joseph Conrad because of “the layers of narrators (there are two) and the contemplative weave of politics and fiction…The characters’ complicated lives, which are at the foreground of the book, persuasively justify everything.”[27] Philip French described it as “dazzling…what Henry James called a ‘large, loose, baggy monster’ – but for our century.”[28] Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker wrote that the novel was "talky and intellectual, while also unfolding a riveting drama: a deeply satisfying book,"[29] and that it was remarkable, “a 21st-century novel written with the ambition of scope of a 19th-century novel, and bearing the seriousness of purpose of a 20th-century one.”[30]

In the Light of What We Know earned its author the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary prize.[31] It was long-listed for the Orwell Prize 2015,[32] the Guardian First Book award 2014,[33] the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award 2015,[34] shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2014 [35] and nominated for the Folio Prize 2015.[36] The author was shortlisted for New Writer of the Year award at the National Book Awards (UK) 2014.[37]


  1. ^ Alison Flood. "James Tait Black prize goes to Zia Haider Rahman's debut novel". The Guardian. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  2. ^ "Hollands Dieps congratulates Zia Haider Rahman" 18 September 2016
  3. ^ Author's website
  4. ^ [1] Retrieved on December 27, 2014.
  5. ^ [2] Retrieved on December 27, 2014.
  6. ^ (April 11, 2014), "The Banker, the Visitor, His Wife and Her Lover", The New York Times. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  7. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol (October 23, 2014), "Witness to the Unknowable", The New York Review of Books. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  8. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol (November 26, 2014), "Books of the Year" The Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved on December 23, 2014.
  9. ^ Wood, James (May 19, 2014), "The World As We Know It: Zia Haider Rahman's dazzling début",The New Yorker. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  10. ^ Adler, Louise (September 5, 2014), "Book Review: In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman", Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  11. ^ Preston, Alex (October 23, 2014), "Zia Haider Rahman's 'epic and intensely moving' debut", The Observer. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  12. ^ Kumar, Amitava (April 11, 2014), "The Banker, the Visitor, His Wife and Her Lover", The New York Times. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  13. ^ Clark, Alex (May 11, 2014), "In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman – review", The Guardian. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  14. ^ Fergusson, Maggie (July/August 2014), "Six Good Books" Intelligent Life. Retrieved on December 23, 2014.
  15. ^ Deb, Sandipan (August 4, 2014), "Love, Reality, Truth and Godel", Mint/Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  16. ^ Prasannarajan, S (June 13, 2014), "A Groundbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", Open Magazine. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  17. ^ Gordon, Edmund (July 2, 2014), "The Customs of His Tribe", The Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved on December 23, 2014.
  18. ^ Chishty-Mujahid, Nadya (July 13, 2014), "Cover Story: In the Light of What We Know", Dawn. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  19. ^ O'Grady, Megan (May 27, 2014), "The Best Books to Read This Summer", Vogue. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  20. ^ O'Grady, Megan (July 23, 2014), "Four American Authors Make the Booker List", Vogue. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  21. ^ Mancusi, Nicholas (April 28, 2014), "The Shadow of History", The Daily Beast. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  22. ^ DWDD Boek van de maand april 2015.
  23. ^ (December 1, 2014), "Writers Pick the Best Books of 2014", The Observer. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  24. ^ (November 30, 2014), "Best Books 2014: Slate Staff Picks", Slate. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  25. ^ (December 3, 2014), "Great Reads 2014", NPR. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  26. ^ (November 30, 2014), "Christmas books 2014: Best books to read", The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved on December 21, 2014.
  27. ^ (December 17, 2014), "Six Books We Missed This Year" Atlantic. Retrieved on 2014-12-23.
  28. ^ (December 1, 2014), "Writers pick the best books of 2014" Guardian. Retrieved on 2014-12-23.
  29. ^ Mead, Rebecca (December 23, 2014), "Best Books 2014" The New Yorker. Retrieved on December 23, 2014.
  30. ^ Mead, Rebecca (December 10, 2014), "Best Things They Read 2014" Barnes and Noble Review. Retrieved on December 23, 2014.
  31. ^ James Tait Black prize goes to Zia Haider Rahman's debut novel. August 17, 2015.
  32. ^ Prize 2015. March 25, 2015, "Orwell Prize"
  33. ^ Guardian first book award 2014. August 8, 2014, "Guardian". Retrieved on 2014-12-14.
  34. ^ Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. April 25, 2015.
  35. ^ About the shortlist October 2, 2014 "Goldsmiths". Retrieved on 2014-12-14
  36. ^ Folio Prize Reveals 80 Titles December 14, 2014, "Guardian". Retrieved on 2014-12-14
  37. ^ Specsavers National Book Awards October 31, 2014, "Specsavers National Book Awards". Retrieved on 2014-12-14.