Recently Ian McEwan said that ‘very few really long novels earn their length.’ I feel that this is applicable to Zia Haider Rahman’s 550-page debut novel, In the Light of What We Know. I have been reading a lot of first-time authors recently and doing so has taught me that just because somebody has published a book, this doesn’t mean that they know how to structure it. This book needed more editing, in my opinion. There is an interesting story in here somewhere, but it has been lost under its own weight and sense of importance.
One day, in 2008, an old school friend arrives on the doorstep of our middle-class narrator. Zafar had gone missing years earlier but turns up, out of the blue, at his friend’s house and starts to tell him his story. There is an assumption here that the reader should care about the story because the writer cares about the story. Most of the chapters begin with at least one hefty quote from people such as Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, but I’m not sure this adds much to the novel. If anything, these quotes – and the liberal use of footnotes – interrupt the flow of the narrative.
For characters so aware of class and race it seems strange to me that Zafar and the narrator are so blissfully unaware of their own sexist attitudes. The main (only real) female character seems to be a cipher; there is a fair bit of misogyny coming from the two main male characters. Is this representative of their culture or not? The female character is only there to serve her female purpose; women feature as sex objects and not as people to be taken on their own terms.
Rahman has received great platitudes elsewhere for this novel. He has had an interesting life, working as a human rights lawyer and banker, and I love to read fiction from a non-Western perspective. But, sadly, I really struggled with this one.