By Leah Greenblatt
June 02, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Knopf

A young Muslim girl, high on the freedoms of her new smartphone, joins a Facebook chat about a local train-station bombing. “And then, in the small, glowing screen, I wrote a foolish thing. I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.”

Her crime, in that brief moment of social-media-empowered outrage, is to accuse the government of mishandling the crisis; the punishment will far exceed it. The consequences of that act reverberate outward in Megha Majumdar’s remarkable debut, a kaleidoscopic portrait of contemporary India told through a wildly divergent chorus of characters.

In briskly alternating chapters, we meet the book's three main players: Jivan, raised to expect no rise in station beyond the slums she was born into but still determined to elevate herself through a job at Pantaloons, where she hopes one day to become a senior sales clerk; her onetime teacher PT Sir, a man chafing at the drudgery of coursework and the confines his own small life until he discovers that he may have a new niche in state politics; and transgender Lovely, who seizes an opportunity to leave her lowly status behind for the dream of Bollywood stardom.

Their loose connections will interweave and grow tighter throughout a narrative that often feels as cinematic as Lovely’s screen test: a rush of brightly textured prose that reads sometimes as pointed satire, and other times as pure tragedy. It's a tricky line to walk, and Majumdar, a Kolkata native who came to the U.S. to study at Harvard and now works in publishing in New York City, handles it deftly, building toward a climax that feels both shocking and somehow inevitable.

More resonant than the book's sometimes fragmentary strands of the plot, though, is the immediacy of her characters; their hopes and fears and ordinary dreams. Early buzz is already comparing A Burning to the work of modern literary stars like Tommy Orange, but the voice — or voices — here are entirely her own. A–

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