book thoughts: A Burning by Megha Majumdar

The backstory: A Burning is the debut novel of Mega Majumdar, who was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She moved to the United States to attend college at Harvard University, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She works as an editor at Catapult, and lives in New York City.

The basics:  "An electrifying debut novel about three unforgettable characters who seek to rise--to the middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies--and find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India.

Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan's fall. Lovely--an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor--has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear."--publisher

My thoughts: I picked up a copy of this all the way back in January at ALA Midwinter. It was already getting a lot of buzz. I think in the opening chapter alone, I wrote 'oh,' 'oh my,' and 'oh dear,' at least five times in my galley. This novel begins with one meaning of the titular burning: a terrorist attack on a train. The three narrators and the connections between them are shown early. I struggled with one of the narrators, PT Sir. I found his character to be less well-drawn than the other two, but he was also incredibly hard to relate to or like. There are also a few brief sections from other narrators that I quite enjoyed.

I like what this novel was trying to do. I really enjoyed two of the main characters: Jivan and Lovely. Still, I wanted to hear from more voices. In particular, I wanted more overlap or perspective on what each of the three narrators were experiencing. I think that would have given the novel more depth, but Majumdar is a gifted writer who chose her narrators and words carefully. The novel is relatively short and has a lot of short chapters. It's a novel I enjoyed reading but didn't love. I do hope it finds wide readership and opens important conversation about its themes. It would make a great book club pick, and I won't be surprised if it shows up on award lists, including the First Novel Prize.

Favorite passage: "If she had received a chance to tell her story, how might her life have been?"

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Source: publisher

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