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.