Clare Cannon's Reviews > Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
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May 08, 2012

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bookshelves: adults, non-fiction
Read from May 01 to 04, 2012

I knew this wouldn't be a feel-good book, but somehow the evocative title and the tragically poetic cover led me to be unprepared for the shocks that awaited from page one right through to the end.

My advice to all who want to read it: first, read the author's note at the end, it is excellent. It situates the book in its proper context and prepares you to take it seriously. Without this anchor, the melodrama of the narrative seems like Days of Our Lives set in Indian slums. But apart from the author's admission that she used 'interpretive language', this is a true story.

The author explains that her subjects were generally short on words, which is why there is minimal dialogue in the predominantly third person narrative. She resorted to 'interpretive language' because she felt that the lack of variation in the language of these overworked people didn't reflect the deep idiosyncratic intelligences that she had detected in them in the four years she spent conducting interviews and spending time with them. Unfortunately it's difficult to know whether the abundant swearing and rough talk is real or part of her 'interpretation'.

We read about real struggles which reveal what these people must do to survive. The text shows the bitter reality of the caste system, and the difficulty faced by anyone who wants to break out of it. But don't imagine epic struggles of good versus evil, what's recorded here is the bitter, sometimes life-threatening squabbles between desperate neighbours in a shanty town. In addition to the language, frequent mature themes show that life is rough for most of these people, but though we are told about it on every page, the style of writing does not make us experience it. It feels like a rough documentary - peppered with coarse language - rather than an adult novel. We see suicides and attempts, prostitution, self-maiming, and we see the people's helplessness, the impossibilities they face, the injustice, and the corruption. But, particularly among the young, we also see hope, hard work, integrity and understanding.

It is not an attractive image of the rise of capitalist India, and though we know it is a narrow view which only considers one slum in one city, its reality carries weight.

Some more things that impressed me from the author's note: she says that the people who feature knew that everything they did and said would not come out 'pretty' in the book, but they participated because they shared the author's concerns about the distribution of opportunity in a fast changing country.

She found that the children were more sensitive, they were not yet the cold, indifferent adults who turn the other way when someone is hurt, or shrug when someone suicides. It is said that death matters little in India because the Hindus believe in reincarnation, yet she found that the young were shocked by death, and that if the adults were less so it was because conditions 'had sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action'.

She says: "From where we are, it is easy to overlook that in these conditions it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?" Reviewed for
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Thank you for such a complete review. I just picked up this book from the library and have been deciding how to go about reading it. I liked your suggestion of starting with the afterword.

I always enjoy your reviews!

Clare Cannon Thanks Heather, glad it was helpful :) I read her note at the end and I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I'd read it first.

Joanne I definitely agree that one should read the Author's Note first.

Erin I sooo agree! If I had read the author's note at the end first, I think I would have felt the book a little deeper.

Michele Roberts I just finished this and thought the EXACT SAME THING about the author's note. That was my favorite part of the book...I have a newfound respect for the author and the slumdwellers.

Jonathon Hagger Completely agree. I wish I had of read the authors notes PRIOR to reading the book. That would have completely altered my understanding of what was occurring.

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