Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs was on the New York Times list for the best books of 2016. I went through the list and requested books at the library, most of the list had a wait list dozens, or hundreds, deep. Not so for The Association of Small Bombs. It was on the shelf at my preferred location. Maybe because I was requesting books the same day the list came out? Or maybe because readers are silly and thought they wouldn’t like a book about terrorism in India? Whatever the case: be me and get yourself to the front of the line to read this one. It’s terrific.
The novel opens with a small bomb explosion in a crowded market in Delhi. What follows is the focused and intense exploration of how this explosion impacts those immediately in its wake and reverberates through them to surrounding people. The book takes as its premise that no one cares about the ‘small.’ The small bombs that kill ‘only’ a dozen people; the small lives that are not glamourous or influential. By the end of the novel this reader was reminded of the way – for most of us – it is the small (which should not be confused with insignificant, or undignified, or unworthy, or lacking in power) that shapes our lives. Our proximity to power is mediated (even as it is ubiquitous), and the likelihood of experiencing first hand (or even in our lifetime) a significant, ‘big’ event (like 9/11) is… small. What could be more fascinating, then, as the subject of a novel then to take one of these small events, and the ordinary people that surround it, and explore the consequences for family, for psychology, for belief and action.
The novel is willing and unapologetic in exploring these questions from all angles. Approaching the psychology and behaviour of those crafting and detonating the bombs with as much sensitivity and sincerity as those victim to the blast and its aftermath. This act of fictional empathy invites readers to expand their sense of easy binaries between good and evil, to ask finer questions about justice and retribution, guilt and innocence and public and person complicity.
Making all of these questions and character perspectives ever the more rich and engaging is the exquisite writing that at once announces itself as beautiful and fades into the background as the compelling story unfolds.
I haven’t seen this on the table of hot reads at any of the big (or small!) bookstores, so you’re likely to miss it unless you read a top list for the year (or a small blog). Don’t miss out on a fresh and necessary read because you get blinded by Heather’s Picks. Heather should be reading Literary Vice…