I was surprised to see how overwhelmingly positive critics' reviews of this novel have been so far, and while I don't completely disagree with them, I thought I would offer a different perspective. This novel focuses on a single man: Zafar, born in rural Bangladesh and rising to a position of privilege via an Oxford education to become a derivatives trader and later, to work for the UN in Afghanistan. Zafar's story is narrated by his unnamed friend; still an investment banker, this friend, who met Zafar at Oxford, is surprised to find Zafar on his doorstep years after he had disappeared. Although he shares with Zafar a common experience of racial prejudice in Britain, his background is very different; the grandson of the Pakistani ambassador to the US, he was born in America. Hence, he is unable to connect with Zafar's continuing anger as he remembers his struggle to navigate 'class-ridden' British society, and his sense of being a continual outsider, even as he takes on official positions of great responsibility and prestige.
As an intellectual experiment, this novel is continuously fascinating. James Wood's excellent review in the New Yorker, which has already been referenced by a number of the reviewers here, rightly reflects on its exploration of the uses of knowledge. As Wood notes, Rahman is interested in exploring why a certain kind of knowledge leads to a certain kind of power, and how knowing the right things, even if you know very little else, can take you far in the world. Zafar, it's evident early in the novel, is not only well-educated in formal terms but an obsessive autodidact; he continuously tells his friend titbits of knowledge that never fail to fascinate. As one of Rahman's devices to remind the reader both how much we don't know and how useless a lot of our knowledge is, it's remarkably successful; as a literary choice, it is perhaps less so, as it frequently interrupts the flow of the narrative. The same could be said for the way in which the novel is told. The narrative is remarkably, and deliberately, difficult to follow. Not only do we constantly switch from the narrator's to Zafar's perspective with little warning, there is no use of quotation marks, so even in hindsight, it can be difficult to disentangle the precise moment when the voice changes. Furthermore, the narrative is told completely out of order, with the climax of the story - Zafar's time in Afghanistan - strung out throughout the book and interspersed with numerous other remnants of Zafar's memories. Again, from an analytical point of view, this way of telling is clearly integral to the novel's intellectual project. Zafar might intercept with bits of solid, factual knowledge, but the hopeless jumble in which he relates his own life reminds us how little we can really hang on to. Nevertheless, it is an authorial choice that becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader.
If Rahrman breaks one of the cardinal rules of the novel by writing such a confounding narrative, he breaks another with his characters. I found both the narrator and Zafar neither likeable nor interesting - a rather off-putting combination. Although I suspect our reaction towards both of these men is meant to be deeply ambivalent, ultimately my disinterest in Zafar meant that this novel - which is largely an exploration of why he has become the man he is today - lacked much of the driving force that it needed. Rahman writes some splendid set-pieces on Zafar - his near escape from a train crash in Bangladesh and his brief contact with a boy he might have been springs to mind - but they tend to get lost in what is, printing tricks aside, a very long novel. Also, for a man so rightly concerned with the classist and racist discrimination he has suffered, he is utterly blind to gender. Both Zafar and his friend are guilty of some pretty sexist statements throughout the novel - I think the low point was their comments on how 18 is the peak of a woman's attractiveness, although Zafar's blithe assertion that career women of 32 have often left it too late to get pregnant was also pretty bad. These attitudes are summed up in the way both men remember and react to the only significant female character in the novel, Emily, a long-term love of Zafar's. Emily, as an upper-class white Englishwoman, represents everything Zafar cannot have, and his desire to possess her is as symbolic as it is off-putting. Sadly, because we only see Emily through the filters of these two somewhat unpleasant men, it is difficult to get a handle on her as a character in her own right, although she seems to be quite capable of manipulation and deceit as well.
In the end, however, it wasn't the novel's uncomfortable gender politics or its convoluted structure that broke me - it was the fact that both Zafar and the narrator are so unforgivably pompous. To an extent, we can see why Zafar has become this hyper-educated, pedantic and obsessed man, but giving him a similar narrator to interact with was, I think, a mistake, especially as the narrator's pomposity is far less understandable. Of course, the characters' obsession with knowledge has thematic relevance, but when the novel ended with an image of Godel and Einstein walking together, as 'they discuss the things that matter to them and why they matter' I did start to wonder whether we were meant to take their discussions seriously. This would be easier to do if Rahman hadn't larded the novel so heavily with quotations - supposedly quotations taken from Zafar's notebooks - as these only added to the general air of self-righteousness. And while the value of knowledge is continually questioned, Zafar, too, judges others by what they know; for example, what they know about the geography and politics of Bangladesh.
This review has been largely negative, but, as I stated at the beginning, there is much to admire in this novel; this, for me, was the other side of the balance sheet. I will say that, whatever its brilliance, In The Light Of What We Know is not a novel to embark on, well, lightly; be prepared to engage.