Two debut book reviews: A Burning by Megha Majumdar & We are all Birds of Uganda

I seem to be devouring books now that we are coming to the end of lockdown. It is strange as I could not concentrate during the pandemic’s height, so TV was my only source of downtime. I now cannot wait for book shops to open again as whilst I buy most of my books online, there is nothing more enjoyable than time spent in the peace of a bookshop absorbing all the new book titles. I appreciate knowing that fellow readers surround me. It is particularly pleasurable when in bookshops like Mr. B’s Emporium, Daunts and Waterstones and the sales staff will engage with you and chat about books they have loved.

These are the two books that I have recently devoured, both recommended by Mr. B’s Emporium and both debut novels.

A BURNING BY MEGHA MAJUMDAR

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This book is described as “the most electrifying debut of 2021”, and whilst I have not read many debut novels in 2021, I can agree with electrifying as an adjective.

“Set in contemporary India, A Burning is the story of three unforgettable characters, all dreaming of a better future, whose lives are changed forever when they become caught up in the devastating aftermath of a terrorist attack.  

Jivan – a poor, young, Muslim girl, who dreams of going to college – faces a possible death sentence after being accused of collaborating with the terrorists.
Lovely – an exuberant hijra who longs to be a Bollywood star – holds the alibi that can set Jivan free, but telling the truth will cost her everything she holds dear.
PT Sir – an opportunistic gym teacher who once taught Jivan – becomes involved with Hindu nationalist politics and his own ascent is soon inextricably linked to Jivan’s fall.”

From page 1, I was fascinated. It is a novel for our time, addressing class, fate, prejudice and corruption in India. A terrorist bomb goes off, and yet the police do nothing to help. Jivan asks on social media, “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” And so the story unravels. Do not think this is a story that the weight is at the beginning of the book as it builds to a crescendo and an explosive ending.

A Burning is a short book so a good weekend read.

WE ARE ALL BIRDS OF UGANDA by Hafsa Zayyan

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Another debut novel from a writer that we need to watch out for. Set between modern-day London and 1960s Uganda. Once again, this is a novel that explores modern-day issues. It explores racial tensions, generational divides and what it means to belong.

Sameer, born in modern-day Leicester, is disillusioned with his high-flying career as a lawyer. He travels to Uganda to understand his familial legacy. His family were South Asian migrants in Uganda and grew and blossomed in a beautiful country. They had a successful business and enjoyed their life there until Idi Amin takes power. Life changes for them forever. Their adopted country no longer wants them, and in particular, Hasan is adrift and stateless. His family flee to the UK, to Leicester, and he is finally allowed to join them, and he has to build a new life.

The writing is powerful and intense. The natural beauty of Uganda cannot transcend the ugly racism that runs throughout the century. However, it shows how important it is to understand where we came from. That knowledge helps us move forward, particularly those who have moved country and culture.

Hafsa Zayyan is a writer and dispute resolution lawyer based in London. She won the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize in 2019. We Are All Birds of Uganda is her debut novel, inspired by the mixed background she hails from. She studied Law at the University of Cambridge and holds a masters’ degree from the University of Oxford.

My copy of this book has already been passed on twice as every time, whatever age the person is reading it, they have loved it. I am hoping this is the first of many novels for Hafsa Zayyan.