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'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by Katherine Boo - Book Review

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Random House
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo was published in February 2012
  • Publisher: Random House
  • 256 Pages
"It interested him that from behind Airport Road, only the smoke plumes of Annawadi's cooking fires could now be seen. The airport people had erected tall, gleaning aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER" - Page 37, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo spent three and a half years observing life in Annawadi, a small Indian slum near the Mumbai airport. From countless interviews, videos and document research, she wrote Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which focuses on the lives of a handful of Annawadi residents from 2007 to 2011 and uses the trial of a garbage sorter who is falsely accused of murder as an underlying narrative.

Early reviews and back cover blurbs touted that Behind the Beautiful Forevers read like a novel, but I was only expecting this to be somewhat true. I've heard the same said of Erik Larson's books, such as In the Garden of Beasts, but I've only found his books to be as novel-like as possible for accurate historical writing. They are not actually as riveting as novels since he can't get inside the characters' heads. Boo's book is. In fact, I was surprised how often the writing was "inside characters' heads," and my main complaint about the book was that I wondered how she could actually know what these people were thinking and feeling. The novel-like quality of the book made me skeptical about its accuracy; however, the "Author's Note" following the text increased my confidence in Boo's reporting, and helped me appreciate the book more.

Indeed, I wanted more of Boo's insight and personal story, which we glimpse in the "Author's Note." I understand why she did not include herself in the narrative, and I think that was a good choice; however, Abdul and others became even more real for me when I read about some of her interactions with them, and reading Boo's questions and interpretations of events helped frame the story for me.

Toward the end of the "Author's Note," Boo writes about the callous behavior between neighbors in the slum and says,"What appeared to be indifference to other people's suffering had little to do with reincarnation, and less to do with being born brutish. I believe it had a good deal to do with conditions that had sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action. In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished" (254). This insight truly enhanced the narrative, and made me want to hear more from Boo not only as an observer, but also as an interpreter of events.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers does not provide answers or generalizations. It tells a story. I think, though, that is why it is so powerful. It is heartbreaking, but real. It does not read like an oversimplification or stereotyped idea. The people are complex and human. It is a story that will make you think and feel.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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