Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

11869272Nonfiction — print. Random House, 2012. 368 pgs. Review copy.

I received Boo’s book for review from the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing. I read the book in a single sitting on a flight across the United States back in January. My hope had been to post about the book before it on sale on February 7, 2012 but, alas, I missed my own deadline.

Subtitled “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” Boo’s book is based on three years of reporting and follows families in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement located near the Mumbai airport and a ring of luxury hotels. Abdul is a Muslim teenager who sees a way out of the slump in the recyclable garbage that wealthy people staying the hotels throw away. An alternative route to the middle class through political corruption is being chased by Asha, a woman who hopes her daughter will be comes the slum’s first female college graduate. But then Abdul is falsely accused of a horrific crime and the economic prosperity he has built up for his family is threatened, throwing them back into the cycle of poverty.

Narrative nonfiction is not my cup of tea. I often times find this particular genre lacks the poetic nature of fiction, making the language feel sharp. Furthermore, because it is not fiction, these genre lacks the ability to immerse the reader into the story due to a distance the author sets up between herself and the people she is trying to turn into characters. Yet it does not emulate the authority of nonfiction, and I can never tell how much of the novel is stretched and how much is based on reality. Admittedly, I had no idea Boo’s book was narrative nonfiction until I began the novel and I probably would have passed on the book based on this fact had I known.

However, I am glad that I did ask to receive a copy. I certainty turned the last page with a greater understanding of the inter-workings of India’s slums and appreciated the opportunity to understand an often stigmatized section of society. Poverty, religion, and caste collude to build up a racist society that sets people on a trajectory of poverty and hardship from birth, but it was interesting to see that a place devoid of hope actually contains promise. And then a corrupt society moves in to squash any hope Abdul and his family has. So tragic.

There is no sugarcoating on the part of Boo, and I appreciated her ability to present the story in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. But the set up from the overall tragedy drags on for pages and chapters longer than necessary. The story is more setting-based than character-based.

The afterward goes on to explain how the point of this book was to show how the slum-dwellers/poor continue to worsen their situations by picking on and tormenting each other rather than focusing on their larger problem. But I think she misses the mark; in a society constructed around pitting people against over and finding self-worth through race, religion, caste, and monetary standing, how can you not expect people in the lowest caste to try and elevate themselves by putting their neighbors down?


  1. Christina, you make a good point about narrative nonfiction. I don’t mind it so much as long as the story is about the author and not other people. For some reason, I though this book was fiction. I haven’t read many books about India and its caste system, I’ll add this to my reading list. Great review.


    • Thanks, Vasilly. In this case, the author is not the main focus and her interviewees are. I haven’t read many books about India, either, so I’m hoping to find something else I enjoy more to introduce me to the country.


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