Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

"The association of small bombs" by Karan Mahajan (Chatto and Windus, 2016)

2 Hindi boys die in a market-place bombing, their Islamic friend Mansoor escaping. The book tracks the consequences for the dead boys' parents, the bomber, rights campaigners (especially Ayub, who befriends Mansoor at "Peace for All" meetings and who meets the wrongly imprisoned Malik) and Mansoor. Both Mansoor and Ayub have personal set-backs and become more religious. Ayub joins a terrorist group and meets Shockie who he realises was the original bomber. Ayub sets off a bomb in a market. Mansoor is imprisoned. Meanwhile the dead boys' parents start a support group for the victims of small blasts.

Each side has a chance to express their views. I wasn't too interested until the bombers' viewpoint appeared, along with some information about bombing. Trust and the risk of being informed upon (or mistaken for an informer) become important issues. Between exposing the idealism and self-hate of terrorist bombers, the unfairness of Indian judicial system, and the ineffectiveness of bereaved arty documentary-makers, it has more serious sections -

  • They returned now to the depths of their lives, awaiting the next hearing.
    The days went by, soggy with anticipation, with the implication of important things happening elsewhere. Deepa baked cakes in the kitchen, punishing herself with heat
  • Throughout their marriage, he had marveled at how little she cried, how she never used tears to blackmail him, and in the past few weeks, there had been something particularly awful about watching this lovely, tough woman reduced to a shivering mass. But now, strange as it was, he was getting tired of it. He only had enough space for his own grief. (p.75)

Before planting a bomb, Ayub's senses heighten - "Another man sat on a bench, crouching over, washing his hands with water from a used plastic bottle, its brand sticker torn off, leaving behind a patchy residue, the ribs of the bottle pressed and distended" (p.233)

Delhi doesn't emerge well - "Delhi has no bird-watchers, only machine-listeners" p.133; "Growing up in Delhi, one gets addicted to pollution" p.145.

There's flash-forwarding, especially on p.165 where a parenthesised passage begins "Later, when it was all over, when his life was coming to an end"

Other reviews

  • Alexandra Schwartz (New Yorker) (This high-stepping internal monologue sounds more like spoken soliloquy than like thought, but spoken by whom? It doesn’t sound like Vikas. It sounds like Mahajan, whose facility for gorgeous turns of phrase produces many passages of vivid, startling power, and many others that are capsized by too hefty a verbal cargo. )
  • Fiona Maazel (New York Times) (Karan Mahajan’s second novel, “The Association of Small Bombs,” is wonderful. It is smart, devastating, unpredictable and enviably adept in its handling of tragedy and its fallout. ... If “The Association of Small Bombs” has any weakness, it’s in the way it shuts down at the end, with haste and a somewhat perfunctory nod to its own fatalism.)
  • Hari Kunzru (Guardian) (The author only intermittently brings his intelligence and considerable nuance to bear on the social and political currents in which the characters are trapped. Instead, he retreats into the default register of contemporary Indian literary fiction, a discreetly elevated realism devoted to the vicissitudes of life in the middle-class extended family)
  • Eric Farwell (Pank Magazine) (Maybe the greatest trick Mahajan pulls off is creating a fully vibrant India, even if it doesn’t extend beyond the few characters that populate the novel)

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