Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

I had high hopes for Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity when I stumbled upon it during one of my weekend visits to my public library. Written by a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and veteran New Yorker contributor, the book was prominently featured in a full-page write-up in a recent edition of the Quality Paperback Club catalog. After having good luck in the past with nonfiction accounts of life in India like Maximum City and In Spite of the Gods, I figured I’d enjoy Boo’s book as well. Considering Behind the Beautiful Forevers is billed as an honest and in-depth look at every day life in one of Mumbai’s largest slums, I was also hoping I would enjoy like I did other books of this type, books like Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus and There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America. So, optimistic as ever, I grabbed Boo’s 2012 book and headed to the automated check-out machine. But after finishing last week, sadly I must report I was a tad disappointed.

While many Amazon reviewers loved the book’s fast pace, I on the other hand did not. As a matter of fact, I’m wondering if Boo’s employment of this strategy might have been the root problem. By taking off the brake and blasting full steam ahead her narrative feels rushed and a bit herky-jerky. In her rush she also neglects to adequately introduce as well as develop any of the personalities whose day-to-day lives undoubtedly were the inspiration for this book. With a pace I didn’t like and a cast of individuals I couldn’t relate to, I had a hard time enjoying Boo’s book.

By closely examining India at its lowest depths, I must praise Boo for showing that in spite of India’s recent economic gains, it is still very much a developing country. While unprecedented wealth is being generated, it mainly stays within an elite tier of society. Poverty is crushing as it is widespread, as is corruption. The nation’s infrastructure is decaying and relative to the huge population it serves, woefully inadequate. Its courts are hopelessly back-logged. The poor are bereft of both a decent public education and even basic health care.

After joining a few new reading challenges back in June, over the last few months I’ve been featuring more international fiction. Maybe reading Boo’s book will inspire me to read an Indian novel or two. And since I have a couple of those kind of novels sitting on my shelf, perhaps I will.

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9 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Indian Subcontinent

9 responses to “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

  1. JoV

    A big part of me thinks despite the promises of China and India as the next economic power, the country will still be developing. Developing is a positive word the unflattery word to describe would be unequal distribution of wealth. A developed nation should not only be wealthy it should take care of the less able and the less fortunate as well. I participated in the South Asian Challenge this year too, hope to see you there! and yes, I am convince that I really really have to read this book!

    • Good points! Dropped by the Challenge’s web page yesterday and I’m thinking about joining. It looks cool!
      Thanks for suggesting it to me. Thanks for dropping by and commenting too!

  2. I was at an event recently and started talking books (shocker!) with a woman who was a self-proclaimed book snob. We bonded over our love of Middlesex and our disappointment in The Marriage Plot. Anyway, she told me I HAD to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers. But I’m going to take your word for it. If I find I need to read something similar, I’ll look into one of your other suggestions 🙂 Thanks for the review!

    • Too funny! While I would still encourage you to read something like Maximum City or There Are No Children Here, don’t be afraid to give Boo’s book a try. Who knows, maybe it’s just me who didn’t like it that much! LOL
      Please stop by again! It’s always nice to hear from you!!!

  3. I didn’t notice a fast pace or lack of characterization when I was reading. I think the characters tended to get a little defined by their circumstances… but that’s because their circumstances are basically all they have? I do think it would have been nice to have more in the book — more time spent on all of the topics she was covering, since I thought she did it so well.

    • Thanks Kim, those are excellent points. Even though I had my issues with this book I think the author did a fine job showing India’s crushing poverty and the unfortunate obstacles to overcoming it.

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