Emily'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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's review
Jan 29, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2013, nonfiction, foreigners, cities

The tone of this nonfiction reportage is troublesome; Katherine Boo is very deeply inside the thoughts of her subjects, the garbage-picker denizens of a Mumbai slum. The tone is novelistic, and by treating them as "characters," she seems to be obscurely depriving her subjects of the agency and actuality of real people. Is it presumptuous or disrespectful? Three chapters in, I flipped ahead to the afterword that explains Boo's process, which I recommend doing if you're bothered by the tone (even though it contains some spoilers). The afterword assured me that the book was based on so many interviews that she could write very specific lines about someone else's feelings at a moment in his life.

It was Boo's "luck" that an astoundingly dramatic event occurred in the place she chose to observe. That plotline pulls the reader into the book, but ultimately I felt more involved in the subjects' daily competition to gather, sort, and resell enough trash to pay for essentials and for the education and homes to allow them to improve their lives. Contrasted with the dramatic interpersonal events is a matter-of-fact presentation of a level of poverty so extreme that the subjects of this book aspire to what Americans would consider a poor lifestyle. By accepting their actual lives, sewage lake and all, the author can then show their aspirations without seeming to treat them patronizingly.

There is some very good writing here--to pluck a few lines from the beginning, we visit a "sumpy plug of a slum" and "Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late." I like that Boo can write with a certain poetic rhythm without miring the reader in a thesaurus. "He took care not to step on the emaciated junkies who nodded out behind the lilies."

I only give five stars to nonfiction books if I find they changed my perspective on something. I think this does qualify--not to imply that I had well-developed opinions on poverty in India before--because it sheds a lot of light on what makes people in developing countries move from the country to the cities, what ties they keep to their former homes, and how they can feel like they have roots in a community when they're just barely skirting homelessness.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Patricia Five stars to your review, too!

Emily Thank you! :)

Cher Johnson I enjoyed your review. Just want to commentthat the way she wrote did creat the inhabitants as real people in my mind, not characters. Perhaps because I recently went to India (though not Mumbai). Now I wondered what the lives were like of those people driving the auto-rickshaws or begging on the street.

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