Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Where I got the book: ARC won on LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.
It wasn't until I read the author's note at the back of this book that I was quite sure I had been reading a work of creative nonfiction rather than a fictionalized account inspired by reality. But apparently Boo spent months talking with the residents of a Mumbai slum to get at the stories she relates, and names and situations are real. Behind The Beautiful Forevers (the inspiration for the title is particularly poignant) reads like a somewhat episodic novel with a large cast of characters, centering around the death of Fatima the One Leg and introducing the reader to her neighbors, who eke out a living mostly by sorting and selling garbage, against the background of India's rapid modernization and the 2008 world recession.
I'm not sure how to formulate my reaction to this book, which is somewhat outside of my usual types of reading (the advantage of review copies - new experiences!) On the one hand, I'm perturbed that such tragic stories of grinding poverty, corruption and very often hopelessness have been packaged into entertainment for the rich (and I would estimate that practically all Americans--even the destitute--are rich compared to these people). Perhaps in the published version there is an addendum suggesting what we can do to change the situation, even though learning what happens with money from World Vision and other international aid organizations as it trickles into these slums does not exactly inspire enthusiasm for giving. But I suspect that for most readers, the memory of the tragedy and brutality of the characters' lives will quickly fade, becoming just another book to check off our reading list.
On the other hand, though, I admired this book as a piece of writing and as an attempt to draw the world's attention to the conditions that perpetuate the extreme poverty that affects so many Indians: the caste system, a social setup that gives women few choices, endemic corruption, an economy increasingly based on unstable temp work, and the failure of the developed world to even begin to understand any of the above. It is finely and carefully written, lending dignity to the people it follows and casting an understanding eye on the moral adjustments that are sometimes necessary for survival.
The main lesson I took away from this book was the importance of hope. With hope, with even the glimmer of the idea that there is a way forward, comes the will to survive. If that hope is absent--as it is for so many of the female characters, triply oppressed--the only way forward appears to be suicide, one such case (a 15-year-old girl) being succinctly described.
My main reasons for knocking off a star were first, the feeling of pointlessness I experienced at the end of the book, and second my difficulty navigating my mind through the large number of characters and a narrative that hops from one head to another. I feel that in attempting not to intrude on a story that she feels belongs to the people of Mumbai rather than to her, the author has left the reader without the necessary guide to understand a world that is beyond the understanding of most of us. A few breadcrumbs--even a list of the characters with a little about them--would help.
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