Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

Five words from the blurb: slum, Mumbai, family, connections, shocking

My favourite book is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry so I am drawn towards other books that are set in Indian slums. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Katherine Boo, after she spent four years living with the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s international airport. The book is a non-fiction account of their lives, highlighting the terrible situations that they have to endure and the corruption that is a part of their every day life.

The book reminded me of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. The journalistic writing style was engaging and all the facts were given in a clear and precise way. The most interesting aspect of the book was learning that corruption was actually useful for some of those living in the slums – being able to manipulate officials was one of the only ways that slum residents were able to improve their lives.

The main focus of the book was the legal trial of one family falsely accused of murdering another slum resident. I liked the fact that the book didn’t simply concentrate of their basic survival and introduced the Indian justice system to the reader. The journalistic style of writing enabled the facts to be given without prejudice, giving the reader an insight into the way slum residents are treated by authorities.

My main problem with the book was that I was familiar with the plight of those living in Indian slums already.

To jumpstart his system, he saw that he’d have to become a better scavenger. This entailed not dwelling on the obvious: that his profession could wreck a body in a very short time. Scrapes from dumpster-diving pocked and became infected. Where skin broke, maggots got in. Lice colonized hair, gangrene inched up fingers, calves swelled into tree trunks, and Abdul and his younger brothers kept a running wager about which of the scavengers would die next.

Tragically the story of these people isn’t new and I’d read about similar events many times before.

I also thought that too many people were introduced. The writing was clear enough for me to be able to place them all and understand their part in events, but I failed to form an emotional connection to them. Several people died during the course of the book, but I’m afraid that I didn’t care enough to get the tissues out. Perhaps this was intentional:

Annawadi boys broadly accepted the basic truths: that in a modernizing, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would matter not at all.

I wish that the book had concentrated on Abdul. As a teenager his perspective on life was the most interesting to me and I think that having one central focus would have given the book a greater depth of emotion.

If you have no idea what life in the slums is like then I suspect this book will shock you. I can see why many people are naming it as their book of the year, but without that emotional connection to the characters I was unable to fall in love with it.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

 Touching, informative, observant, and irresistably readable, I cannot recommend this fine book enough. BookeyWookey

 …an eye-opening read that introduced us to the extremes of a rapidly prospering city. Take Me Away

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is beautifully written, informative, and an important piece of investigative journalism. Between the Covers


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8 Comments

  1. Kathleen says:

    I loved A Fine Balance. It really brought me to my knees emotionally. It is rare for a book to have an effect like that on me. I have Behind the Beautiful Forevers on my shelf at home and look forward to reading it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, Finding a book that matches A Fine Balance is an almost impossible task. One day I hope to find one, but I can’t imagine I will find many in my life time.

      I look forward to your thoughts on Beautiful Forevers – I hope that you enjoy reading it.

  2. Sandy says:

    I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I’d be surprised if there are people out there that DON’T know about the slums of India, if not through books, then through movies. Slumdog Millionaire and and Born Into Brothels were both huge movies. So I’m wondering if this book is just a decade too late to shock?

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I think you’re right. The only difference between this book and Nothing to Envy was the fact that Nothing to Envy brought a new situation to light. Beautiful Forevers could well have been a life changing classic had it been written 10 years ago.

  3. JoV says:

    I love journalist account of real events and I do think this book sounds like one that I really would like to read. A bit apprehensive about the lack of emotional bond with the characters. Perhaps I’ll read it like news! Thanks for the review Jackie. This sounds great.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, Treating it like a news report is exactly the right thing to do – this book is just one long news report of the highest quality. I hope that you enjoy reading it.

  4. JoAnn says:

    A Fine Balance is one of my favorite books, too. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is on my wish list – even checked it out of the library, but had to return it unread. I will keep Jo’s suggestion in mind and read it like the news when I get to the top of the hold list again.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, I’ll be interested to see what you make of it once you get hold of it again. Treating it like a newspaper report is a very good idea :-)

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