A Burning by Megha Majumdar

This slim little novel, with its short chapters and vivid characters, is an absolutely chilling fable of ambition. A fable without a moral, perhaps, which makes the truth at its core toll with horror. 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Jivan, a Muslim girl from Kolkata trying to pull herself and her parents out of poverty, becomes the scapegoat for a government eager to punish terrorists for a recent and deadly attack. Her fate falls to two people who know her: Lovely, a hijra actress whom Jivan has been teaching English, can attest that Jivan was carrying a package of textbooks on the day of the attack – not a bomb, as so many assume. And PT Sir, Jivan’s former physical education teacher, who brought her food when she was hungry and encouraged her athleticism at school. Lovely and PT Sir are both called to testify in Jivan’s trial. But their involvement in her case puts their own social aspirations at risk. 

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was magic, from beginning to end. I loved everything about it.

I love the way Majumdar uses imagery. She has a vivid way of describing things that makes the events and her characters’ feelings jump off the page. But she also has this tendency to end sections with a small image or two that adds this wonderful lyrical complexity to the prose. I just love it. It gives you a moment of pause between more plot-driven segments… it zooms in, focusing onto something very small (“There is a thin shard of porota sticking to the rim, an airy nothing made of flour. Not even a fly would be nourished by it. I pinch it with my fingers, and put it in my mouth.” “The fragrance of the pickled lime makes my tongue water. The salt and acid play on my tongue, and I chew the sourness down.”), and it also, sometimes, somehow simultaneously, zooms out (“Outside, the din of car horns.” “Somewhere a clock ticks. Far away, an ambulance siren sounds.”) so that you become aware that these characters’ stories are part of a bigger, more complicated, more beautiful or, often, more cruel, universe. These details from the world intrude on her characters’ thoughts – removing us from the action in a way that emphasizes its poignancy.  It’s a very simple rhetorical technique, and yet I find it very effective and often quite heartbreaking.

The three primary characters in the book – Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir – are so different from one another, so beautifully imagined, so complex, so real. I would read an entire book about each one. Majumdar somehow made me care about them so deeply – even PT Sir, whose trajectory is uncertain; is he a villain or a hero? – that I was on tenterhooks waiting to learn how their stories would play out. They each had very distinct voices. Today, when books are often told via the perspective of multiple characters, I think it’s rare to find that each perspective has its own distinctive voice. But Majumdar was very successful in achieving this with each of her characters. 

There is a simplicity in the way Mujamdar tells this story that is very effective, as well. A relaying-of-the-facts, anthropological remove in her descriptions of the mundane and the extraordinary, the repellant and the picturesque, the heart-breaking and the charming, often all bound up together. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: It feels like a cop-out to say that I only wish it had gone on longer. But that’s truly my only complaint. 

Should You Read This Book? Yes. It is startling, upsetting, but also tender and honest. It takes an unforgiving look at corruption and morality. It was beautifully written, very easy to read, and one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2021. Buy a copy – you won’t regret it.

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