Bombs splinter families

In Karan Mahajan's second novel, two families in Delhi are wrecked by a senseless bombing

FICTION

THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS

By Karan Mahajan

Viking/Hardback/ 288pages/$29.96/ Major bookstores/4 stars

Karan Mahajan's The Association Of Small Bombs climaxes in its first chapter: A bomb goes off at an open-air market in Delhi, killing 13 people and leaving 30 wounded.

Then, in a feat of storytelling, the novel sustains itself by splintering - shrapnel-like - into multiple perspectives, trailing the grief- stricken parents of the dead, the miracle survivor haunted by tragedy, and terrorists, seasoned and budding.

Mahajan's second novel is a devastating and cleverly crafted look at tragedy, both in the run-up and the fallout, and at the circumstances that may lead a person to contemplate mass murder.

The bombing has robbed Deepa and Vikas Khurana of their sons, 11 and 13.

On their way to collect a television past its prime from the electrician, the brothers are caught in the blast and killed on the spot.

Their best friend and neighbour Mansoor Ahmed, a sheltered 12-year-old who tagged along on the errand without his parents' knowledge, survives.

And so, in a housing complex in Delhi, two families find their lives disrupted by the bomb in different ways. Neither will recover.

Mahajan plumbs the depths of misery with his evocative prose.

The mundane becomes heartrending: the Khuranas, are confronted by memories of their sons at every turn, in their house. Everyday tasks such as showering bring tears instead of solace.

"Under the shower there is the outline of your body for water to fall around, then a sputter and dry- throated silence in which you are sheathed in the same soap that you remember scrubbing off the shoulders of your boys," writes Mahajan. "No action is safe from meaning."

He teases out two different trajectories for husband and wife, trapping both in separate obsessions and sends them pulling apart and crashing together as they try to make sense of a relationship gutted by the loss of their children. It makes for a harrowing read.

Vikas - the proud, struggling documentary film-maker, who insists on putting on a successful front for his well-to-do family - becomes fixated with making a documentary about the bombing, while Deepa is bent on seeing her son's killers punished.

As her husband lurks around the market, getting shots of the hustle and bustle between bouts of self-pity, Deepa starts haunting the courtrooms and police station, angling for a chance to speak with the accused bomber.

Meanwhile, the Ahmeds are at a loss over how to handle their son, who is dogged by nightmares and panic attacks. They ship Mansoor off to California for university, hoping a change of scene will help his recovery.

But the trauma from his childhood has left its mark: injuries to his wrist mean he must abandon his dream of being a programmer.

A listless Mansoor returns to India and finds himself under the wing of the charismatic Ayub - one of the leaders of a non-govern- mental organisation that wants accused terrorists to be given fair treatment and trial, believing that corrupt policemen have pinned the blame on innocent men.

But the two men are headed for a downward spiral. Mansoor, disillusioned with life and without purpose, turns inward. Ayub also battles demons of his own. His belief in peaceful protest evaporates after his protests go unnoticed and unacknowledged.

Desperate to bring about change, he heads off in search of a Kashmiri terrorist group and volunteers to plant a bomb in Delhi.

The Association Of Small Bombs is a timely book. With terrorism continuing to cast a pall on the world, questions abound: Why do people fall prey to terrorist ideology? What drives people to abandon their families and countries to join a brutal war in the Middle East, where extremist group ISIS has amassed a force of more than 27,000 foreign fighters?

In Mahajan's book, Ayub's path to terrorism echoes those of some of the real-world foreign fighters who have swelled ISIS' ranks.They are disenfranchised individuals who, in their despair, have embraced terrorism to give purpose to their lives, just as Ayub has.

Mahajan, too, explores the scale and circumstance of terror. Can glaring media attention and massive death tolls define the success of a terrorist attack?

In his book, a seasoned terrorist tells a recruit: "People say 9/11 was the worst terror attack of all time - was it? I think the small bombs that we hear about all the time, that go off in unknown markets, killing five or six, are worse. They concentrate the pain on the lives of a few. Better to kill generously than stingily."

The novel evenly paced up till the last four chapters, which hurtle past, hastily tying up the fates of Mahajan's characters.

It is a pity to see characters so painstakingly drawn out in fine detail for most of the book reduced to rushed, convenient endings.

There are no happy endings in this tragedy.

In the book's world, lives once touched by trauma cannot escape its shadow.

Stark and sobering, The Association Of Small Bombs is an ode to those whose lives have been wrecked by senseless violence, but whose grief and pain have, in their statistical insignificance, gone by largely ignored by the wider world.

If you like this, read: The Year Of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (Picador, 2015, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a book on the difficult lives of Indian migrant workers in England that was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize.


FICTION

THE GUN ROOM

By Georgina Harding

Bloomsbury Publishing/Paperback/211 pages/ $32.05/Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

The late prominent American philosopher Susan Sontag once wrote: "We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera."

Such contrasts - of love and death, war and peace - are stark in British author Georgina Harding's fourth novel The Gun Room, which follows her Orange Prize- shortlisted Painter Of Silence (2012).

The hero is Jonathan, a war photographer who rises to fame after he captures an American soldier broken by war and dazed by all the ongoing bloodshed and mayhem.

His money shot would grace news publications all over the world, but the experience was so traumatic that he becomes a nomad.

He eventually settles in Tokyo with barely any possessions except his camera. There, he meets a local English teacher, Kumiko, whom he falls in love with and photographs both outdoors and in more intimate settings.

The modern-day Instagram generation might appreciate Jonathan's obsession with the city - from the seasonal cherry blossoms and the majestic silhouette of Mount Fuji, to the modern-day neon bright lights of Akihabara and historical Shinto shrines.

In the midst of romance, Jonathan's past keeps catching up with him, whether it is the trauma of his childhood or his days covering the Vietnam War.

One of Harding's most impactful lines comes in a scene that involves Kumiko's grandfather, also a victim of war.

The dementia-stricken avid gardener exhorts, out of urgency and fear, not to move the leaves from the ground.

She writes: "Jonathan suddenly thought, he's afraid of the soil. He too has seen blood in the soil and knows that the soil smells of blood."

Harding becomes then the unseen photographer and her prose a conduit of more serious issues such as the moral complexities and emotional consequences of conflict and the inability to face up to one's past.

If you like this, read: Painter Of Silence by Georgina Harding (2012, Bloomsbury Publishing, $21.05, Books Kinokuniya). A heartrending tale of friendship set in war-torn Romania in the 1950s about a deaf-mute vagabond who encounters a nurse with whom he shares poignant childhood memories.

Walter Sim


FICTION

THE TRANSLATION OF LOVE

By Lynne Kutsukake/Doubleday/Paperback/ 315 pages/$16.84/Books Kinokuniya/4.5 stars

The year is 1947 and in American- occupied post-war Tokyo, 12-year-old Fumiko is desperate to find her older sister, Sumiko.

But Sumiko, a hostess in a Ginza dance hall frequented by American GIs, is too ashamed to go home.

Their story forms a main thread of the elegant tapestry that is Japanese-Canadian author Lynne Kutsukake's moving first novel.

What unites her large cast of characters is that they are caught between two cultures, in a Japan that should but does not feel entirely like home.

There is Fumi's English teacher Kondo - a man well-versed in Melville and Poe - who supplements his income by writing English letters for Japanese women.

There is also Corporal Matsumoto (or Matt, as he prefers to be called) who is ethnically Japanese but American in every other way.

And there is Fumi's friend Aya, the "repat girl" who grew up in Canada, but is driven back to her homeland during the repatriations that took place after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

In some ways, this cast of characters feels slightly forced. It is almost as if Kutsukake is checking off boxes on a list by having each individual represent a way in which someone can be Japanese and not-Japanese at the same time.

What makes the novel work is the way in which she fleshes out each person's past and motivations, giving the reader a sense of the alienation they feel.

Their stories build up a picture of the confusion of post-war Japan as it tries to shake off its authoritarian past and face a new, democratic future led by American reforms.

But translating abstract concepts into practical reality is difficult as an ironic classroom scene early on demonstrates.

Kondo is trying to teach his class social studies, a new addition to the Japanese education system. How- ever, it is clear that he himself struggles to understand the subject's purpose.

"In the past... we mistakenly studied bad history and bad geography," he tells his class. "As we know, American children are more democratic because they are taught social studies."

This and other scenes - such as the one in which Sumiko takes a day trip to Kamakura with an American GI - show Kutsukake's deft hand at portraying ambivalent Japanese attitudes towards all things American.

It is her gift for characterisation, however, that makes The Translation Of Love such a riveting read.

If you like this, read: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014, $16.84, Books Kinokunyia), about how the lives of a blind French girl and a young German soldier intersect during World War II.

Linette Lai


FICTION

THE BIG RED BOOK OF MODERN CHINESE LITERATURE: WRITINGS FROM THE MAINLAND IN THE LONG TWENTIETH CENTURY

By Yunte Huang

W. W. Norton/Paperback/605 pages/$72.26/ Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

This 600-page anthology has a lofty goal: to find the soul of modern China, declares its editor, Yunte Huang, a China-born professor at the University of California (Santa Barbara). To that end, it draws on the work of more than 50 writers and is divided into three parts, the Republican era (1911-49), the revolutionary era (1949-76) and the Post-Mao era (1976 to present).

While anthologies can be choppy and unsatisfying, Huang's lovingly curated collection, ranging from excerpts from modern Chinese classics, poetry in both classical and experimental styles, and lyrics by China's Bruce Springsteen, rocker Cui Jian, takes the reader on a ride through modern China. Its polyvocal quality shows that there is no one soul of modern China, but many souls, comprising different points of view from the 20th-century Chinese high and low culture.

The conscientious inclusion of canonic Chinese patriotic writers - Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Lao She and Ba Jin - suggests Huang believes in the primacy of the political story of China. The sociopolitical commentary is spot-on in some cases, like in Lu Xun's seminal Diary Of A Madman which criticises the tyranny of social mores through the narrator's view of the world as a cannibalistic society bent on eating him. But others can seem didactic, such as Lin Yutang's essay My Country And My People. He details the misperceptions of China through the eyes of foreign experts "who cannot talk three syllables of Chinese". It is interesting that many of Lin's refrains on the misperceptions of China would still ring relevant to Chinese readers, but reading several of these moralistic and patriotic works at one go can be tedious, even if the texts exemplify the concerns of intellectuals during those times.

Admirably, the anthology includes more intimate works, giving the reader a sense of how individuals dealt with the turbulence of dramatic change in Chinese society.

A stand out is feminist writer Ding Ling's subversive novel Miss Sophia's Diary, about the inner life of a young, tubercular girl who moves to Beijing. She is a fascinating narrator, at once calculating and vulnerable, exemplifying the modern girl trying to find her identity in a modern world.

The tome includes many well- known Chinese writers, but also a few offbeat choices in poems, song lyrics. There is more than enough here to rekindle interest for the seasoned reader, but also makes for a thrilling introduction to modern Chinese literature.

If you like this, read: The Columbia Anthology Of Modern Chinese Literature by Joseph S. M. Lau (W. W. Norton & Co, 2016, $57.81, Books Kinokuniya), which gives a comprehensive overview of 20th-century Chinese writing from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Lee Xin En


FICTION

SIX FOUR

By Hideo Yokoyama translated from Japanese by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies Quercus/Paperback/640 pages/ $32.95/ Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

The lone wolf stereotype beloved of Western thriller writers is overturned in this Japanese police procedural.

Lee Child's Jack Reacher and Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch may fight for justice solo, but Hideo Yokoyama's Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami fears ostracism as much as he wants to solve a 14-year-old case of kidnapping and murder.

Police officers in Japan consider themselves part of the same family. Like any extended family, there is a rigid hierarchy and every member knows his place. To refuse to conform is to court professional and personal destruction.

Mikami is already dangerously on the fringe. Once a respected investigator, he has been transferred to the post of press director. He is excluded from active investigations and treated as a hostile by both his colleagues on the frontlines and the journalists he has to feed at daily briefings.

When he scents the possibility of solving a case that still haunts him, the ingrained habit of following orders prevents him from following the trail. Any mis-step will mean the end of his career and any hope that fellow officers will continue the search for his runaway daughter.

Six Four is a fascinating addition to the ranks of Japanese crime novels translated into English. Popular books thus far, such as those by Keigo Higashino, build on tropes familiar to the audience such as Sherlock-style investigators. Yokoyama, however, entices by presenting the unfamiliar.

Mikami's desire to toe the line would be laughable for Reacher or Bosch.

Even Donna Leon's Inspector Guido Brunetti of Venice and Barbara Nadel's Inspector Cetin Ikmen of Istanbul have played lone hands more than once in their quest for justice. Mikami's helpless and believable conformity is what makes him easier for the reader to identify with.

The late Ed McBain also made the politics within the police force pivotal to the plot in his 87th Precinct series of novels, but the dynamics within the Japanese machinery are completely different. The final solution to the mystery underscores the triumph of the group over the individual. That a reader regardless of background will understand and agree with this is another point in favour of an already compelling story.

If you like this, read: Shield Of Straw by Kazuhiro Kiuchi (Vertical, 2016, $27.04, Books Kinokuniya). Cops are caught between greed and duty when a billionaire offers a huge reward to anyone who will kill the one who murdered his grandchild.

Akshita Nanda


FICTION

THE NEST

By Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Ecco/Paperback/400 pages/$26.54/ Books Kinokuniya/4stars

One of the hottest new titles right now, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel The Nest takes on sibling relations and money and churns out a comical and riveting page-turner.

People are lapping it up. Besides getting the author a seven-figure advance, the book is No. 2 on The New York Times' Best Sellers list for hardcover fiction.

The story revolves around four middle-aged siblings, the Plumbs, who share a joint trust fund nicknamed The Nest. Soon, when the youngest Melody turns 40, the siblings will have access to the inheritance from their late father.

Just months before the handout, oldest sibling Leo messes things up in one night of drunken debauchery with a young waitress that leads to a car accident.

Their mother unexpectedly helps Leo out by dipping into the trust to settle his expenses from the crash, leaving substantially less money for his siblings.

With their financial futures shaken, the siblings are forced to figure out what is next in their lives.

Former copywriter Sweeney sketches out each dysfunctional sibling with acute sensitivity.

There is Leo, the drug addict in the midst of a divorce who is supposedly the biggest success in the family. That leaves his younger brother Jack to be labelled as "Leo Lite". Gay and married, Jack is hiding a secret from his partner, and with the fate of the nest hanging in the balance, he takes extreme action.

Then there is Bea, who just wants everyone to get along; and finally, sweet, desperate housewife Melody who was counting on the nest for her teenage twin daughters Nora and Louisa's upcoming college expenses.

What works in the book is that amid the rash and sometimes, unfathomable, actions of each flawed sibling, Sweeney humanises her characters such that each is easy to sympathise with.

Through subtle hints dropped here and there, readers might even see a little Jack or Melody in themselves.

As Simone, the twins' friend succintly puts it: "Everyone's always on the hunt for a mirror. You want to see yourself reflected in others."

At times, however, Sweeney complicates matters by adding too many characters and sub-plots, such as the tough Italian Vinnie, who is unnecessarily thrown into the mix as the love interest to Matilda, the waitress.

This is a minor hitch in an otherwise compelling read that may be crossing over to even more mainstream platforms.

Online entertainment website Deadline has reported that Amazon Films has made a pre-emptive acquisition of The Nest, which means that the colourful lives of the Plumb sibling might soon pop up on the big screen.

If you like this, read: The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Riverhead Books, 2014, $14.51, Books Kinokuniya) for more family drama as the Post family head for a vacation to the Spanish island of Majorca.

Gurveen Kaur


FICTION

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES

By Kate Tempest

Bloomsbury Publishing/Paperback/ 389 pages/$27.99/Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

Kate Tempest is a multiple award-winning performance poet who has tried her hand at plays, hip hop records and commissions by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The Bricks That Built The Houses is her first novel, a gritty, no- holds-barred ode to the South London where she grew up.

It opens with two women - Becky, a dancer, and Harry, a drug dealer - being driven away into the night by their friend Leon. In the backseat is a suitcase of stolen money. Behind them is South London, the only home they have known.

After this desperate prologue, the narrative goes back in time to sketch out how they got into this situation.

Struggling dancer Becky works by day at her uncle's cafe and by night as a "happy endings" masseuse in dodgy hotels.

Her father is a firebrand left-wing activist jailed for statutory rape, and her mother, an aspiring photographer who turned to drink and then to religion, eventually joining a convent and leaving Becky to be raised by her aunt and uncle.

The androgynous Harry, meanwhile, deals drugs to wealthy clients, while her best friend Leon acts as her muscle. She loathes the business and dreams of setting up her own bar or club .

Harry meets Becky at a party and sparks fly, but when they next meet, Becky is dating her brother Pete, an unemployed pothead.

The plot moves them towards the events that prompted their flight from London slowly. The author prefers to meander, exploring the backstories of even the most tangential characters - Becky's maternal grandfather barely escaping Nazi capture or the runaway years and teenage pregnancy of Leon's mother.

Tempest's tenderness towards these tiny life stories puts a new spin on the Pink Floyd mantra of "You're just another brick in the wall". She is determined to celebrate each of these bricks that built the houses, in all their miseries.

The South London portrayed in the book is a dreary pit of the small-minded, where poverty and addiction keep people in vicious circles. But beneath the squalor is a simmering passion that threatens to engulf the city in flames, manifest most often in love or attraction, which is frequently evoked as a kind of urban disaster.

For instance, Becky smiles and "all the streets in Harry's heart are on fire, all the windows in all the houses smash at the same time" .Tempest imbues the passions of characters with melodrama that would be bombastic in the hands of a less capable poet. Her prose is not without flaws, clearly straining towards the spitting rhythms she is most known for and falling flat during certain efforts to advance the plot. A shouting match between Becky's uncles comes across as particularly forced, with its egregious use of capslock.

But the novel is redeemed by the fierce affection she displays towards its true protagonist - South London in all its violent, grimy glory.

The real enemy is not any of the crooks who threaten her characters' lives, but the regentrification transforming the quarter, pricing out its inhabitants and robbing it of its sordid charm.

Tempest wields her words as a benediction. She takes South London - its bread and booze, its tired people - and makes them worthy of being in an epic.

If you like this, read: Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Transworld Publishers, 2004, $18.71, Books Kinokuniya), told through the eyes of Bangladeshi teenager Nazneen, who arrives in London's East End as an immigrant in an arranged marriage.

Olivia Ho


FICTION

CAMBODIA NOIR

By Nick Seeley

Scribner/ Paperback/ 342 pages/ $46.01/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

True to its title, this debut novel by journalist Seeley is a work of genre fiction set in the gritty underbelly of Phnom Penh. The year is 2003 and Phnom Penh is where "bad journalists go to die", a lawless refuge for Westerners with difficult histories, teeming with drug use and prostitution.

Once-great war photographer Will Keller works for an English- language daily after years in Afghanistan. He is the cynical bad boy who spends his days drunk and quite happily, being drugged out of his mind.

One day, a mysterious femme fatale Kara Saito approaches him for help. Her sister June, a Japanese-American intern at his paper, has suddenly disappeared on the trail of a story. Only Keller can be trusted to discreetly navigate Cambodia's underworld to look for her.

Keller obliges, but finds himself in murkier territory as it becomes apparent that June - and Kara - are not whom they claim to be.

He manages to get hold of June's journals. Her entries, which drop hints about her past and escapades in Cambodia, form an evocative voice that provides a refreshing departure from Keller's fatalistic macho posturing, which can get tiresome.

While Seeley's familiarity with the nuances of Cambodian life fuels a convincing portrayal of the setting, the reminders about Keller's substance abuse and his sure death in the jungles of Cambodia - whether potentially caused by drug smugglers or hostile co-workers - call out the contrived nature of his hardboiled persona.

The novel surges into its climax when Keller finds himself plunged in danger as he noses close to the truth of June and Kara's identities. He becomes a more compelling character when his facade melts as he is forced to confront trauma from his past.

Disappointingly, the loose ends of the plot are tied up in a rather schematic manner, abruptly transitioning into a redemptive conclusion.

But Seeley's deft, cutting prose, which casts Cambodia as a bewitching fever dream while steering clear of exploitative treatment of the developing country, makes up for these shortcomings.

It is perhaps Cambodia's psychogeography that ultimately emerges as the true protagonist. Seeley sends an intelligent reminder that the squalid streets of Cambodia are but a mirror of the darker recesses of the human spirit - "a world built to reflect us back at ourselves, a world of poverty and deference".

If you like this, read: Ghost Money by Andrew Nette (Crime Wave Press, 2013, $22.34, Books Kinokuniya). An ex-cop is hired to find a missing businessman in Cambodia in 1996, at a time when the Khmer Rouge loses its hold on power.

Yuen Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'Bombs splinter families'. Print Edition | Subscribe