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Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Posted by gck Thursday, December 22, 2011


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo

Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: readers interested in world poverty, people with too many first world problems and need a dose of perspective
Received ARC copy through a GoodReads giveaway.

Back-cover summary:
From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

My review:
Midway through, I asked myself how I would rate the book. At the time, I wasn't sure. A 3? A 5? I was so conditioned to expect books to behave a certain way -- for one thing, to have a main character -- that I was having an "I don't love it" reaction to this one. By the end, I decided it deserved a 4.5 star rating for good writing, really placing me in the middle of a completely different world, and themes that will resonate in my mind long after I finished reading.

I try not to read too much about a book before I actually read it, so I somehow missed the fact that what Katherine Boo writes about is all real. Hollywood and mainstream fiction had me waiting for the Slumdog Millionaire story, but it didn't appear. Because that's not how people's lives are. Ultimately, this genuine depiction of real people's stories and motivations affected me far more than a feel-good or feel-sorry dramatized plot would have. Things don't get wrapped up neatly in the end, but that's because the characters are still living their lives. Katherine Boo has an author's note that closes out the book and summarizes themes that she encountered while researching the book's material.

There are many things in the book that are shocking. The indifference to death in the slums. The selfish, heartless ways neighbors treated each other. The rampant corruption -- items and money that funnel in through well-meaning charities? Probably not going to the people who need them the most. Through the rose-colored goggles of an American, my instinctive reaction (that lasted through a good portion of the book) was to judge the people who acted "badly," blaming them for the dysfunction of the system and the suffering of others. By the end of the book, I no longer thought the same way. Katherine Boo sums it up at the end:

"In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be..."

That is what this book is about. I highly recommend it.


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