Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Author: Katherine Boo
Release Date: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Genre: Nonfiction, Cultural (South Asia)
Rating: 3 out of 5
In a narrative nonfiction style, Katherine Boo tells the story of multiple families living in the Annawadi slum near the Mumbai airport, surrounded by luxury hotels. As the existence of their slum is threatened by developers, these individuals try to get ahead and capture some of India’s prosperity, often at the expense of one another.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is an eye-opening and fascinating look at life in a Mumbai slum, but only for those who aren’t familiar with the topic. Without the shock value of depiction of life in Annawadi, the book falters, lacking a true narrative thread and any real push to keep reading the book.
I’m always hesitant to pick up books I’ve read rave reviews about, which is why I still hadn’t sought out Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Katherine Boo won a Pulitzer Prize for her narrative account of life in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum. But when my book club selected it for one of our monthly picks, I knew my attempts to avoid reading this book had come to an end.
And to be honest, I found myself underwhelmed by Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It’s not that what Boo writes about isn’t interesting: it is. The way these people live is so foreign to us, so strange and sad, that it’s hard to not be fascinated by her depiction of life in the slums. And it wasn’t that she inserted herself into the narrative, the American woman going to “save” the slum dwellers; while this was something I had worried about, Boo doesn’t include herself in the narrative at all. She writes about the people of Annawadi; they are the center of her story, not Boo.
No, my issue with Behind the Beautiful Forevers was the fact that I wasn’t shocked by it. I’ve read a lot about Indian slums, both in fiction and nonfiction. While I can’t profess to be an expert on them by any stretch of the imagination, I’m (academically) familiar with the way of life in the slums. And I think that was the problem. This book is best read by someone who has little knowledge on the subject. The shock value of the book is what keeps readers riveted, turning the pages to see what might happen next. Without this surprise, there is little to keep the reader interested in the narrative because Boo doesn’t really present a coherent story.
Boo does have an interesting central point that she makes towards the end of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, though. There are so many poor in India, so many have-nots. But rather than working together to make their lives better, they get ahead at the expense of one another. It’s an interesting thought, to be sure, and one worth discussing (as I will be with my book club). But it’s also difficult (and wrong, in fact) to pass judgment on these people who eke out their living on the fringes of society. Boo is careful not to do that, which is why, in the end, I do recommend this book if you’d like to learn more about slum life in India.