The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
Published March 2016, Read November 2016
Rating: ♥♥♥♥ (of 5)
“The cascade of horrors, the way they were narrated, with fiery intention but also the deadness in the eyes, the eyes having turned into shields that guarded the inside rather than bringing light from the outside, reminded Mansoor of how he himself talked about the blast. After a certain point the violence of your life acquires unreality through repetition.”
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan deserves all of the praise it has received this year. Shortlisted for the National Book Award, the novel follows the shockwaves, physical, social, and emotional, that ripple through various lives following a bombing in the Lajpat Nagar market in Delhi. Mahajan used incredible prose to tell the stories of Mansoor, the lone survivor of a trio of boys present the moment of the blast, and his relatives and acquaintances as they cope with the after effects of a blast seen as random and small in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Personally, I had a hard time with the writing (not the story) from about 20 pages in until around halfway through. I kept thinking that Mahajan was telling me, rather than showing me, what his characters felt. It felt as though he were pouring pebbles into an empty vase rather than slowly opening a box, bit by bit, so I could see for myself what was inside. That being said, though, each character is unique and don’t fall into easy stereotypes. Motives are varied and complex and Mahajan works hard to ensure each action is well understood.
I admire, as well, Mahajan’s ability to write such a political book without preaching overmuch. There are brief moments one might consider “preachy,” but they are passages where a liberal activist or a terrorist are extolling the virtues of their ideologies.
What the brilliance of this book comes down to, however, is Karan Mahajan’s ability, simply put, to write. From the first three pages, I knew that this book was a rareity. For a pleasure read, I got out my pencil so that I could underline every incredible sentence, each seemingly the product of hours of crafting. At times I was so impressed I had to stop and read a line or passage again and again to savor the luxurious food Mahajan was offering up. In my opinion, his work belongs in creative writing classes the world over to demonstrate the art of beautiful writing. He is a master craftsman.
In the end, The Association of Small Books is a finely wrought novel about the unknown and infinite connections we share with other people. While suffering is universal, it is unique to its time, place, and person or group. The book is one anyone can read and find meaning in, but the author skillfully avoids creating a novel about India for Americans (or white people in general). He weaves complex metaphors and themes through bizarre, moving stories, leaving one not necessarily fulfilled at the end, but still in the knowledge that the end could not be anything else. The circle begins and ends at the same point.