In the Light of What We Know

A Novel

Zia Haider Rahman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A bold, epic debut novel set during the war and financial crisis that defined the beginning of our century

One September morning in 2008, an investment banker approaching forty, his career in collapse and his marriage unraveling, receives a surprise visitor at his West London townhouse. 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.
     In the Light of What We Know takes us on a journey of exhilarating scope--from Kabul to London, New York, Islamabad, Oxford, and Princeton--and explores the great questions of love, belonging, science, and war. It is an age-old story: the friendship of two men and the betrayal of one by the other. The visitor, a man desperate to climb clear of his wrong beginnings, seeks atonement; and the narrator sets out to tell his friend's story but finds himself at the limits of what he can know about the world--and, ultimately, himself. Set against the breaking of nations and beneath the clouds of economic crisis, this surprisingly tender novel chronicles the lives of people carrying unshakable legacies of class and culture as they struggle to tame their futures.
     In an extraordinary feat of imagination, Zia Haider Rahman has telescoped the great upheavals of our young century into a novel of rare intimacy and power.


Read an Excerpt

Arrival or Wrong Beginnings
Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind



Praise for In the Light of What We Know

Praise for In the Light of What We Know

“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

"[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

In the Press

IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW by Zia Haider Rahman | Kirkus
War can divide friends. But then again, so can peace and all that falls between, the spaces inhabited by this ambitious, elegiac debut novel by Bangladeshi-British writer Rahman.
- Kirkus Reviews
Zia Haider Rahman & Eric Chinski | Work in Progress
Zia Haider Rahman's In the Light of What We Know tells the story of a friendship
- FSG's Work in Progress

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Zia Haider Rahman

  • 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.

  • Zia Haider Rahman © Katherine Anne Rose


Available Formats and Book Details

In the Light of What We Know

A Novel

Zia Haider Rahman



Farrar, Straus and Giroux