Plodding plot, burdensome backstory weigh down In Light of What We Know
I’m not a very smart guy.
At least not compared to Zia Haider Rahman, author of In Light of What We Know.
I dropped out of journalism school because I got a job on a newspaper – hey, I thought if I could get a job on a newspaper before graduating just think of all the tuition I'd save, right?
Anyhow, this is a review about Zia Haider Rahman’s novel, not my autobiography.
Smart is what Rahman is – first class honours at Balliol Oxford, then on to Munich and back to finish at Cambridge and Yale, sort of the academic grand slam.
This is his first novel and as one would suspect for a guy that smart – did I say he also worked as a investment banker at Goldman Sachs in New York – that would likely make him rich as well as smart.
Back to the novel, his first one, it’s a huge hit. Well, what would you expect from a super rich, super smart guy except his first novel would be a best seller?
In Rahman’s novel, the protagonist has an unexpected visit from an old friend, Zafar. It’s been a long time with no contact. The guy’s a wreck, obviously been through a lot. Our hero naturally takes him in and as Zafar recovers over the next few weeks he tells him what he’s been up to.
Pretty ordinary set up, certainly not what I’d call a dramatic hook, but then like I said I’m not very smart and Rahman, well…
The title of Rahman’s book’s appropriate since In Light of What We Know tells the reader everything there is to know about Zafar; how the narrator and he met and their college days, Zafar’s upbringing in the UK, his return to his homeland of Bangladesh for a few years when he was a boy, how he met his wife, the social status of his wife’s family, plus a whole lot more with only the occasional, very slight nudge to move the plot forward.
The reader also learns similar information about the protagonist including lots of philosophical and mathematical ramblings with a few pages thrown in on how maps of the globe misrepresent the size and proximity of the continents.
All I wanted was more details about Zafar’s journey, but no, Rahman is stingy with plot details and even a hint of his friend’s story is burdened with pages of personal, philosophical and cultural perspectives.
I get it that this information may be necessary for context, but of the one hundred and sixteen pages I managed to struggle through ninety percent of it was backstory. Because I didn’t persevere beyond this point I’m in the dark as to whether all this history was necessary, but in light of what I read I decided to abandon In Light of What We Know.
This, of course, cannot be the novel’s fault after all it was awarded the James Tait Memorial Prize, Britian's oldest literary award. Perhaps if I would have finished my education I might have enjoyed Rahman’s novel more, or even a little bit, but who am I kidding. Obviously someone who dropped out of community college can’t begin to comprehend the subtleties and nuances of a novel written by a guy with honors from Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge.
I’m hoping he’ll dumb down his next novel for the likes of me.