Home / The 30 Things List / 28. Read 300 Books / Book #4 Down: Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Published on February 22, 2013, by in 28. Read 300 Books.

Another book finished!  I really hope I don’t get bored writing book reviews – there isn’t much else to write about right now  because I’ve been caught up in New House Drama.  The good news is that it’s almost over and I’ll (hopefully) be able to write a couple posts about our new living space.  In the meantime…

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo is a non-fiction book about life in a slum in India called Annawadi.  Boo did hundreds of interviews in order to compile the stories in the book and wrote from the perspective of a limited omniscient narrator, which made it read more like fiction.

Admittedly, this isn’t a book I ever would have picked up on my own.  Like Wild, I read it as part of the Almost Fearless book club.  And, like Wild, I had a different reaction to the book than most of the people in the group.  Many of the book club members though that Behind the Beautiful Forevers was pretty boring, which I don’t understand AT ALL.  It was depressing and sad, but it was never boring.  Life in Annawadi is survival on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.  You can not know what’s going to happen or where you will get your next meal.  How is that ever boring?!

The Good:

  • It’s fascinating.  From my privileged American perspective, I simply can not imagine living the life of a slum dweller.  Even just the beats of every day life (collecting trash, waiting hours for running water) are interesting because they are so different from my own.
  • It’s heartbreaking.  The lives of those in Annawadi are built on shifting sands and any small problem can turn into a huge tragedy.  There’s so much corruption and misery, it’s hard to believe people live through it at all.  Reading about how they survive is deeply sad but also an affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.
  • It really made me think, especially about how to help.  The book covers how charity is misused in slums – well-meaning donors send money to charitable organizations, but those working with the charities lie and misuse the money.  They’re corrupt, as are the government anti-poverty programs, as are the police, hospitals, courts, etc.  It’s hard to read about an otherwise good person using corruption to benefit over their equally poor neighbor, but it’s explained by one character as pure necessity.  When the whole system is corrupt, you must be corrupt as well, just to compete.  It’s no longer a question of ethics but of survival.  How do you help when those that need it most are also the most easily exploited?

The Bad:

  • The writing is dry at times.  The descriptions are not colorful or rich, but that might be because nothing in Annawadi is colorful or rich.  It’s hard to make a sewage lake beautiful.  There are also long periods of inaction where the author had to establish the relationships between characters or describe how a broken system functions.  This may be what put other readers off, but I didn’t mind it so much.
  • It’s heartbreaking.  There were a few nights I just couldn’t read it because it’s really bummed me out.  At the beginning, I was hoping for something that would change the life of my favorite character for the better… and by the middle I knew it wasn’t that kind of book.
  • The end doesn’t really wrap anything up… because that’s how life is.  The lives of those in Annawadi went on, and likely continued to be pretty awful.

The Interesting:

  • Everything.  The book is interesting, the author’s stay in Annawadi to do interviews is interesting, her translators are interesting.

Would I recommend it?  Yes, if you’re interested at all in life in India.  Everyone who loved Slumdog Millionaire should certainly read it and dig deeper into that side of Indian culture.  Anyone who has complained about talking to someone from India in a customer support situation (giving or receiving) should read it, too – learning about the culture, especially in terms of the difficulty finding employment, might make them a little more understanding.

What book is next?  Not sure yet, but I’m going to try to find something funny.