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Review: ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ by Katherine Boo

Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Author: Katherine Boo
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2012
Publisher: Random House
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: I have wanted to read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers since it came out in January, but didn’t make the effort to request it from my local library until it received the 2012 National Book Award in November. It’s a real shame I didn’t pick up the book sooner, as it has easily been one of the best books I’ve read this year. First, a summary:

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. (Source)

The thing that makes Behind the Beautiful Forevers bigger than “just” a book about poverty in India is the lens with which Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for her work reporting on poor communities in the United States, uses when approaching the stories of Annawadi. Behind the Beautiful Forevers isn’t a book about the results of poverty, what Boo calls the “poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum.”

Instead, it’s a look at the institutions and structures of India and what it takes for individuals to navigate that infrastructure to try and lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a book about whether there is even a possibility for an “Indian Dream,” and which people benefit from the institutions put in place to try and make those dreams possible. It’s a slightly different focus to think about poverty, but a focus that makes all the difference in elevating this book from simply good to truly impressive.

Most of residents of Annawadi that Boo writes about start the book with some hope of changing their circumstances. That change seems small — a piece of land in a slightly better slum, a college degree, access to a slightly better garbage pile to scavenge recyclables from — but all of those goals represent the possibility for a better life. But by the end, it’s clear that the very structure of India and corruption at almost every level have created a world stacked against the people of Annawadi and the rest of Mumbai’s slums in such a massive way that it feels almost impossible for anything good to happen.

Take, for instance, the story of Abdul and his family. After being accused of instigating violence in their neighborhood, three members of the family are sent to jail and forced to reckon with the corrupt Indian justice system. The money it costs the family to bribe officials combined with the lost income while they sit in jail bankrupts the family and destroys their small hope of ever leaving the slum. The inability to navigate these institutions causes the residents of Annawadi to turn on one another, taking from each other when no one has enough.

I really can’t think of what to say that would do this book justice. It was heartbreaking and infuriating but so worth the time to read. Katherine Boo has truly written a masterpiece about life in an Indian slum that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Other Reviews: One-Minute Book Reviews | Between the Covers |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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  • Diane@BibliophilebytheSea December 11, 2012, 5:58 am

    Wow – sounds powerful. I’ve been meaning to read this one as well. Terrific review.

  • Nikki Steele December 11, 2012, 9:18 am

    This one has been on the radar for a while, but I think you just successfully pushed it to the top of TBR list. I guess I didn’t have a really good sense of what it was about to begin, and while this review doesn’t make me hope for a feel-good read by any means, it sounds amazingly well put together and deserving of all the awards it has won. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim December 12, 2012, 8:03 pm

      I don’t think I had a great sense of the book before I read it either. I knew it was about life in a Mumbai slum, but I wasn’t expecting the angle she approached the topic with and how much more powerful that perspective would make the story. I was really impressed.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) December 11, 2012, 3:02 pm

    That sounds like one of those books that is difficult to read yet very compelling. I tend to talk about books like that to everyone I know.

  • Athira December 12, 2012, 8:46 am

    This one sounds very compelling. I’m going to have to look for this one. Looks like it definitely deserved the Award.

    • Kim December 12, 2012, 8:04 pm

      I think so, although I’ve only read two of the nominees so can’t really say if it was more deserving than the books I haven’t read. It did affect me more strongly that the other nominee I read, Anthony Shadid’s excellent memoir, House of Stone.

  • Jennifer December 12, 2012, 10:44 am

    Another book that I can’t wait to get into my hot little hands! Fab review!

  • Stephanie December 12, 2012, 3:14 pm

    This is a gorgeous review, and it does sound like an amazing book. I’ve definitely never read anything like this. Thanks for the recommendation, Kim. I’m off to add it to my list.

    • Kim December 12, 2012, 8:06 pm

      I hoe you enjoy it. I’d venture to say it’s the best book on India I’ve read, but I’m struggling to remember all of the books I have read.

  • susan December 12, 2012, 5:52 pm

    congrats in reading this important book. good for you

  • Jenny December 13, 2012, 5:11 pm

    I’ve been leery of this one just because I know it would sadden me so much. But I’ve always intended to read it, especially if I can get it on my Nook — that way I can switch away to a different book for a few minutes, if need be. :p

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:47 pm

      Most of the time as I was reading I felt more frustrated and angry than sad. I mean, it’s definitely a sad book, but the part that got to me was the way structures and institutions that here in the US we can trust (for the most part) are just corrupt in India to a point where the poorest people are kept down by the things designed to help. It was maddening.

  • Aarti December 13, 2012, 9:18 pm

    I really enjoyed this book, too. It was so sad, though. I am going to India in a couple of weeks and I hope to have more perspective while there.

  • maphead December 13, 2012, 10:31 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it. I’m probably the only one in the world who had a few problems with this book. But it did win the National Book Award- so what do I know!? LOL
    In case you curious, here is a link to my review:
    http://maphead.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/behind-the-beautiful-forevers-life-death-and-hope-in-a-mumbai-undercity-by-katherine-boo/

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:48 pm

      I remember that! Thanks for linking to your review so I can revisit it again now that I’ve read the book :)

  • Esme December 16, 2012, 9:20 am

    I did not read your review as I have this-but you have inspired me to take it home at Christmas and read it.

    HOw are you-it has been so long since we have talked?

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:48 pm

      I hope you enjoy it! And I’m doing well — just trying to get through the week until I have a few days off for Christmas :) And you?

  • Cecilia October 5, 2013, 9:39 am

    Like you too I’ve been wanting to read this book but never got around to it. So glad to hear that you are highly recommending it. I will move this up on my to-read list.