Book review: In The Light of What We Know

The words ‘epic novel’ are thrown about rather loosely in our time of marketing overkill and PR buzz. They fit Zia Haider Rahman’s debut very well though, for a number of reasons. For one, it’s impressive sweep across geographies and ideas. Then there are the massive subjects it tackles — big, weighty themes like love, war, and even science. That he manages to hold these threads together, while raising difficult questions and laying bare the intimate lives of his protagonists, makes In The Light Of What We Know an epic.

In The Light Of What We Know
In The Light Of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman, Picador, Rs 599. Available at leading bookstores.

At the heart of the book is a story of betrayal. A middle-aged investment banker is surprised by a visit from a long-lost South Asian friend. In exchange for his hospitality, the friend makes a powerful confession that changes their relationship forever. This confession and its aftermath is played out against the backdrop of world history, under the shadow of the 2008 economic crisis that shook the world as we knew it.

Rahman has that rare gift of being an entertaining pedant. His characters are incredibly intelligent, and not ashamed to display it. They discuss everything from philosophy to immigration, while their creator uses their dialogues to explore everything from finance to class divides. The writer’s own astonishing CV may account for the breadth of conversations contained within the novel, but his abilities as a storyteller are what prevent it from crumbling beneath the weight of its many concepts.

This isn’t the perfect novel; fiction is rarely this ambitious. It has moments of great tenderness though, and great beauty, and it makes the familiar seem new, which is what art is meant to do or at least aspire to. If there’s just one epic you feel the need to read this year, this ought to be a strong contender.

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