Book Review | The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

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Association of SmallRating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Short Review: The Association of Small Bombs stands out in a wealth of fiction investigating conflict and terrorism. Jumping between multiple perspectives, it gives a rich, long range view of terrorism’s effects.


When three young Indian boys take a trip to the market in 1996, only one of them makes it back home. Bloody and nonsensical, Mansoor leaves the bodies of his two friends to walk home alone. The rest of the story changes perspectives over the next couple decades, giving voice to those in the aftermath of just another “small bomb,” the ones abroad that seem commonplace in Western media. Killing 5 or maybe 15 people at most, maybe these are the worst of all, both because of their frequency and because they force a small number “to carry the burden of the majority.” In these small blasts, that weighty burden is oftentimes forgotten and overlooked, leaving the families and survivors to rebuild their lives sans aid.

The Association of Small Bombs is unlike anything I’ve ever read, investigating the fears and motivations of all sides at the heart of a terrorist attack. Mahajan manages to show the embittered terrorists working to make a world in their vision, children who live with the physical and mental ramifications of being a survivor, and the parents who live every day with the knowledge that they were unable to shield their children from evil.

The first of those three is easily the most interesting of all– it wasn’t hard to imagine the grieving parents and fearful survivors, but understanding the terrorist mindset is much more difficult. Mahajan shows an almost frightening level of understanding of how terrorists justify their thinking. It’s unique, not simply the foreigner resenting Western values and using violence to illustrate such. The people in The Association of Small Bombs are ones who have read Gandhi and know of Martin Luther King Jr. A couple are ones who have already tried to protest peacefully, and haven’t been heard. Others are ruthless men who want to show violence in a world where only violence and sex receive substantive media coverage. One character justifies the actions of 9/11 by considering it urban planning, saying that infamous hijacker Mohammed Atta was putting his degree to use by removing “twin monstrosities” from the skyline.

If you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t an easy read. It’s challenging, but artfully done. There are long periods where justice isn’t served, or where it is clouded, forcing readers to squint to find it. There are points where vengeance takes over otherwise kind people. Marriages are ruined, children are murdered, and all the while, men talk about it casually as an evil necessary to create a better world.

I gave this book 3.5 stars because it’s really well done, adding a human element to things I’ve only studied academically. The constantly changing perspectives, while vital to the plot, are sprawling at times. I was confused by new additions of characters, or why Mahajan chose to give voice to a specific background character. Thankfully, it all comes together in the end, but there are moments where you just have to trust him. Give it a read if you’re interested in books that transport you to somewhere new, or if you think you can stomach getting deep into the mind of a terrorist.

There’s been a lot of talk about this book, so I’m interested in the opinion of people who have read it. Let me know in the comments if you’ve already read this, and if my review is on point– or if this is on your TBR list! Also looking for something similar, and y’all know I’m always here for recommendations!

Disclaimer: I was given this book in exchange for an honest review. I’d probably have picked it up anyway, though, because my curiosity was piqued by the title, cover, and hype.

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22 Comments

  1. […] Association of Small Bombs is unlike anything I’ve ever read,” writes reviewer Whitney Lorraine, “investigating the fears and motivations of all sides at the heart of a terrorist attack.” She […]

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  2. […] from The Association of Small Bombs: There’s only so much I can say about this one without spoiling the ending for the many […]

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  3. […] The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan […]

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  4. I met Karan Mahajan last month during a book signing and speaking event. He read part of his novel and just that day there had been another bombing somewhere (I forget where, I’m sorry that’s horrible :/ ). So the room was especially tense, as was the reading. But it was

    I was planning to read this book in April, but that planned totally failed. I only read half of the books I planned to read and now I have a pile of newer books I want to read in May. Ugh.
    But I do look forward to reading The Association of Small Bombs. Difficult reads and controversial topics don’t turn me away, they do the opposite.

    The only other book I’ve read that included a story from a “terrorist’s” perspective was Saadia Faruqi’s “Brick Walls.” It was just the one story in the collection, but it was handled very well so I’m curious to read a novel that has this kind of angle.

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    1. I would love to hear him speak on the subject. I can imagine it’s not the lightest conversation. You can probably tell, but I’m very similar to you when it comes to books about controversial topics. I found myself drawn in every time. Particularly since I studied terrorism in grad school. You should absolutely make your way to reading this book. It’s worth it. Few books are able to really capture every single side of an event quite like this.

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  5. Great review! This has been on my shelf for a month now and I really need to get to it already. The one other book I’ve attempted in this vein is John Updike’s “The Terrorist”, which is awful (imo – it’s so sanctimoniously xenophobic) – I barely made it through the first couple chapters. But it sounds like that’s not at all an issue in Mahajan’s work.

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    1. I’ve never read Updike’s “The Terrorist,” but that’s definitely not an issue with this one– you should give it a try!

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  6. That sounds terrifying but intriguing. I really want to see how the terrorists’ perspectives are done, like you said these are the most difficult to pull off. I’ve shied away from this except for Mohsin Hamid since so many come from a Western perspective.

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    1. So intriguing. This one isn’t western-geared, which makes it interesting. More a series of character studies than an indictment on any one group.

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      1. Yay! I took a 9/11 lit and film class once and whoa I have zero tolerance for that intro scene about terrorists and Islam that occurs every damn time. So glad there are books such as this one!

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      2. That sounds like an awful class.

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      3. It was though not necessarily planned that way. The point was to be critical of such perspectives, but of course we still had to watch all that crap.

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  7. This sounds intense. Sheesh! I wonder if I could stomach reading this. ..

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    1. I think you’d be alright, even though it is intense at times. It’s not as intense as it may have been if he’d chosen to write it as a thriller.

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  8. Great review! This is on my TBR, and now I’m even more curious to read it.

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    1. Definitely read it! It took me almost a month to finish it, to be honest, but got really good in the second half!

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  9. Thanks for the great review! I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, and now I’m going to make sure to move it up on my to-read list. I really appreciate books that are willing to dive into the darkness, to explore the justifications that humans use for things that, from other perspectives, seem unfathomable. Have you ever read Terror in the Mind of God by Mark Juergensmeyer? It’s a more academic text, but it looks at these same questions of the link that is often drawn between religion and violence/terrorism–totally changed the way I look at the world.

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    1. You’re exactly right about books that dive into the darkness. I feel the exact same way! Books like that help me understand the world around me a little bit better. And no, I haven’t read Juergensmeyer, but I’ve read much on the subject from terror experts. I think I saw this his background is at Union? I’d be interested to see what terrorism scholarship looks from the theologian’s perspective.

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      1. It was a fascinating read, and I really appreciated the variety of examples he used to illustrate his points. His background at Union definitely makes for an interesting perspective on collective/religious memory and the conception of bringing the cosmic war between good and evil down to earth. If you read it let me know what you think!

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  10. Great review–I’ve heard of this book but only in brief, and now I understand what the title refers to. Sounds harrowing.

    Have you read Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera? Some similar themes there.

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    1. I haven’t read that– I don’t even know that I’ve heard of it. but I just googled it, and I think its definitely something I’d be interested in reading. I really could study South East Asia forever.

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