Its characters are at the very front of the stage, and we can feel their breath ... [the] spare plot moves with arrowlike determination ... Majumdar’s novel is compelling, yet its compulsions have to do with an immersive present rather than with a skidding sequence. Her characters start telling us about their lives, and those lives are suddenly palpable, vital, voiced. I can’t remember when I last read a novel that so quickly dismantled the ordinary skepticism that attends the reading of made-up stories. Early Naipaul comes to mind as a precursor, and perhaps Akhil Sharma’s stupendously vivid novel Family Life. Sharma has spoken of how he avoided using 'sticky' words—words involving touch and taste and smell—so as to enable a natural velocity; Majumdar finds her own way of achieving the effect ... It’s only at the end of this brief, brave novel that one becomes fully aware of how broad its judgments have been, how fierce and absolute its condemnations. Through the gaps that open up among and behind these three characters, a large Indian panoply emerges. The book’s surface realism—that great boon to writers—is abundant and busy and life-sown ... But the system that at once supports and undermines this diverse vitality is seen with an unrelentingly cold authorial eye, in all its small and large corruption, its frozen inequality, murderous racism, political opportunism, and unalleviated poverty. At the same time, because societies are complex, and because Megha Majumdar is a sophisticated student of that complexity, her novel gains flight as a tale of competing dynamism. Her three ambitious and intelligent characters are all moving up, out of the class they were born into; Jivan’s plight is that this ambition, forced by circumstance into a desperate resolve, involves a struggle that she seems fated to lose.
...[a] propulsive debut novel ... a baldly, horrifyingly plausible premise ... The narration swivels from the perspective of one character to the next, each of whom, by dint of status or sensibility, knows something the others cannot ... Lovely is the guerrilla unit, the novel’s most exuberant creation ... The texture of the novel — its amplitude, tenderness, commotion — comes to us from her curiosity and habit of attentiveness ... This is a book to relish for its details, for the caress of the writer’s gaze against the world, the way it dawdles over all that might be considered coarse or inconsequential ... Majumdar’s descriptions of life, of stench and bodies, of stifled ambitions and stoked resentments, feel instructive, a rejoinder to the ways reality is so commonly distorted ... Majumdar writes with a lanky, easy authority; the narrative stride is broken only by rare missteps ... What we describe helplessly as our fate is, very often, other people’s choices acting upon us — choices that remain largely unknown or, at best, dimly perceived. The novel flays open these mysteries ... The interplay of choice and circumstance has always been the playing field of great fiction, and on this terrain, a powerful new writer stakes her claim.
... caught me off guard with its urgency and deep understanding of the relationship between an individual and India’s purportedly democratic society ... Majumdar illustrates how ordinary people find themselves swept up by a broken political situation in which their own agency can become belittled ... Thankfully, this is not a savior narrative. Instead, it’s a scorching and intimate look at those who find themselves bearing the full brunt of an enormous, diverse society’s prejudices and passions. Told in effortless, pitch-perfect voices that borrow from traits of prophetic oratory, A Burning works on the reader emotionally and directly, free from authorial intrusion ... In a time of brutal governmental intrusions, we need literary voices that eloquently speak complicated truths about individual agency and collective decisions. A Burning is a taut, propulsive and devastating debut novel. Gripping fiction, sure, but there’s not a false note in here.