A Burning by Megha Majumdar was hyped by almost every publication on the planet as one of the best books of June 2020. So I bought it.
It made me feel things…mostly sadness and anger. I guess that means it was good?
What is it about?
In India, a terrorist attack at a train station kills a bunch of people. A young Muslim woman is arrested for the crime. What happens next?
What is this book like?
It reads like a page-turning thriller. But it’s not a thriller. It’s a Literary…uhhh…I’m not sure exactly what it is…kind of a mix of a character study and criticism of Indian class structure and prejudice?
A not-terribly-accurate comparison would be if you took To Kill a Mockingbird but told the story from the point of view of Tom Robinson, the judge, Boo, and Mayella.
The novel alternates between the point of view of the young arrestee Muslim woman (1st person POV), her aspiring-actress hijra friend who may be able to assist her (1st person POV), and her former gym teacher (3rd person limited POV).
What’s awesome about this book?
When many people think of Literature (if they think about it at all), they may envision long paragraphs with obscure words and strange, ungrammatical punctuation. They may think of endless, super-specific descriptions filled with adjectives and adverbs. They may believe that a Literary book will have an experimental hard-to-read format. Or they may think that Literature is more food for the brain than the heart: it may make ya think, but you don’t FEEL anything when you read it.
A Burning isn’t like that. Short, strong, punchy sentences propel the reader along at a fast pace. The story is tense, sad, and frustrating. I was consistently filled with dread and/or sadness throughout the reading of this novel. The characters’ actions feel organic; I never felt like the plot was twisting simply to manipulate my emotions.
The book isn’t just designed to send the reader on an emotional journey. It’s loaded with many, many interesting themes: how power corrupts, systemic pressures, the perpetually cyclical/loop of prejudice, violence, poverty, the necessity of moral compromises for advancement. I believe this would be great book club book!
The characters are so realized I really felt empathy for them. For example, I felt the Muslim girl’s fear and disgust and confusion and modest ambitions and frustrations.
Books loaded with political and societal criticism can sometimes feel like a hollow political ad or campaign literature in which the story and characters are just a way to push through a political argument. I didn’t get that vibe from this book.
What sucks about this book?
If you are in the mood for something light and fun, full of adventure and sunshine and sexiness … this ain’t the book for you. It’s emotionally heavy.
An easy-to-read novel that will generate some Deep-Thinking. And maybe some tears.
TLDR: Read this book if you:
- like literary thrillers
- want to read a book that is set in a country that isn’t the United States
- believe that good art makes you feel things
TLDR: Avoid this book if you:
- do not like political thrillers
- do not like non-US-based settings
- want something light, happy, and/or fun
I don’t know what India is like. I have no idea what being a Muslim in India is like. I don’t know anything about India’s legal system or government. So I don’t know if this book is true or could be true or what. I’m just going by the story itself and looking at it from that basis. If you like this story, maybe explore Indian authors.
My Rating: 5 Stars