Thursday, January 5, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

genre: nonfiction

The subtitle of this book is Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. I find that term, Undercity, an interesting one, since this book is about a community of people who literally live under the shadow of the wealth and power that resides in this financial capital of India, but also the fact that those who live there are the underneath of society, those whose earning capacity and material wealth are at the bottom of the heap. 

Annawadi is the name of the slum where Katherine Boo attempts, for us Westerners, to breathe some life into what people, right now, are living through.  She is a completely omniscient narrator - the fact that she is THERE, either watching or hearing the story from someone who was, must be assumed by the mind of the reader because this book reads like a fictional narrative.  There are several main characters that we get to know and at the end of the book, the author gives a bit of discussion as to why she chose to focus on these people (and I had to keep telling myself, these are REAL PEOPLE, who could live on my street if life had dealt them a different hand). 

I shall be honest: this is a harsh book.  It hurt my heart.  It made me want to pretend it wasn't real.  Sometimes I was so frustrated that I had a hard time believing people could be THAT corrupt, that false, that desperate - I almost became cynical.  But then there were these moments when you could see that these people wanted so much more than they were able to procure for themselves - that to be absolutely poor in a sense that I cannot even fathom, will do things to you that until we've experienced it, we can't understand.  There IS hope there, but it is hope that has to be fought for so hard, against forces so beyond your control, that the fact that there is any at all is a miracle. 

The complete lack of sanitation, medical care and basic necessities can lead to unfortunate choices - theft, prostitution, bribery, embezzlement, suicide, you name it.   People will do amazing and horrible things to survive.  You might have a job sorting through stolen trash to find things you can sell to a recycler.  Or you might steal the trash yourself.   We get a hands-on look at the justice system among these lowest of the low - and I guarantee you'll want to hit your head against the wall just reading it.

It's hard to give any kind of rating to a book like this. Is it well-written, cohesive?  Yes.  Does the author include relevant factual information when appropriate to flesh out the story?  Yes.  Was it fun to read?  No.  Do you feel good when you're done reading?  No.    Am I glad I did?  Yes.  Am I still thinking about it?  Absolutely.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to


bermudaonion said...

I find books like that heartbreaking too, but I think they're important and I appreciate you bringing this one to my attention.

Julie @ Read Handed said...

I'll be reading this one soon. I'll be sure to brace myself before starting it. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Netherland said...

I just finished reading this and would definitely recommend this to any and everyone - I had no idea that a work of non-fiction could be ranked so highly on a literary scale. Which is where I rank it - very high on literary skills. That is not counting all the other hundreds of great things people have said about this book which also I fully endorse.

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