For my 16th birthday, I was given a copy of Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. It was an amazing book which I loved, but one of those books that makes you feel like you must be terribly uncultured, perhaps a bit dim. I read it with a notebook beside me, making lists of all the things I needed to look up. I have read that book several times now; it has the corners of pages turned down, quotes underlined, all sorts. This was in the days before universal internet access (remember those days, boys and girls?) so I would use the encyclopaedias in the library to try and figure out all of the cultural references. Yes, I really am that much of a geek.
I have not had that feeling with a book until the lovely people at Picador sent me a copy of In the Light of What We Know to review. It's a massive tome of a debut novel; the size of a house brick, with long chapters filled with references to things I had never heard of. Instead of a notebook next to me, I had my mobile or laptop with Google open!
This book is... hard to explain. It's written from the point of view of one man, of Pakistani origin who has always been very well off. A friend he made at university, Zafar is from Bangladesh and grew up very poor, until his education afforded him well-paid employment. Zafar has been out of touch for some time, but one day arrives at his friend's London home, and they sit down together to talk - for days, weeks, perhaps even months. This book is presented as a record of their discussions, in which Zafar tells his story, but also veers off on tangents often. As I progressed through the book, I couldn't help thinking, this can't possibly be made up; nobody could make this up! It feels very much like the account of a conversation between two old friends. When I had finished the book, I read the bio on the press release and found that Zia Haider Rahman shares a lot of biographical details with his characters... but then, why wouldn't he? Fiction or not, we write what we know, right?
The novel itself is set during the start of the financial crisis and the Afghanistan war at the beginning of this century - but the stories Zafar tells go back and forth in time. It covers a lot of ground: everything from the formation of Pakistan and the war in Bangladesh, to the origins of the financial crisis, commentary on Western presence in Afghanistan. Along the way there are thousands of asides containing random information and cultural references such as why flags are flown at half mast, the New Colossus - a poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, childhood poverty, mental illness, mathematical theory. There are references to writers, to pieces of music, to people and places. Geographically, it goes from London to Princeton to New York to Kabul, Islamabad, Oxford, Sylhet.
With all of this information crammed in, you could be forgiven for thinking it must be something akin to reading an encyclopaedia - but Zia Haider Rahman writes eloquently, weaving a story I was quickly sucked into. I was infuriated the book was too big to fit into my handbag, as I wanted to take it everywhere with me - to read whenever I found myself with a few spare moments.
I've spent a long time trying to figure out how to explain the story, but even now, a week after I finished reading it, I cannot tell you what it was ultimately about, or what actually happened in it. It's one of those books where nothing happens, but at the same time everything happens. It's a story of friendship, love and betrayal. I think I probably need to read it again in a month or so to pick up all the parts of the story I missed the first time around.
Like all great books, there is that moment where the reader stops and thinks, No! I did not see that coming! The expert way the book is written means that this, along with many other parts of the story, is not explicitly discussed, but rather skirted around, alluded to - the author assumes you can grasp what he's talking about, without his having to go into detail. And because the story is so far-reaching and covers so much ground, that particular part of it is not really so much of a twist - about as far as one can get from the usual "it was her brother all along" type of plot twist.
I love to read a book where I feel like I'm learning something. I studied history for GCSE and A Level and even began a degree in history, but our education system focuses so much on Europe that I must admit I had little clue as to the formation of East and West Pakistan, Bangladeshi independence, or the bloody war that ensued. With this book, I felt that I learned something almost on every page. Perhaps I am just terribly uneducated, but I loved finding out all of these random things. Because it's a novel, it's entirely possible everything has been made up though, so Google was used a lot to check - did that really happen? Did that person really say/do that?
One thing I found difficult about this book was that there are very few speech marks. When Zafar is telling his story, he's often interrupted by the narrator with nothing but a line break to tell you a different person is speaking. Conversations within Zafar's story also lack speech marks, and in both instances I often found myself confused as to who had said what. I really think that is the only criticism I can conjure up for this book though.
This is a beautiful, epic book. It is fantastically well written Like all great books, it leaves you wanting more. Despite being so long and packed with information, there are whole areas of the characters that have been barely touched upon - for example the time Zafar spent in Bangladesh as a teen, or the things he found out about his Bangladeshi family after the fact (sorry for being so vague; don't want to let any details slip!) To me these warranted more detail and I find myself intrigued as to that side of the story.
Unlike some of the books I have reviewed recently, this is not a quick, easy Summer read. This is a Winters evening with a blanket and several mugs of hot chocolate kind of a book. Oh, and Google. You'll need Google.
Note: I was provided with this book for the purpose of a review, but all words and opinions are my own.