Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
From Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo:
Open quote 

Abdul rose with minimal whining, since the only whining his mother tolerated was her own. Besides, this was the gentle-going hour in which he hated Annawadi least. The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast, and the parrots nesting at the far side of the lake could still be heard over the jets."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B+

This bestseller made all the critics' year's-best lists. It's a nonfiction account of life in a Mumbai slum next to the international airport. It follows the struggles of several families as they try to survive through day labor, scavenging, theft, whatever it takes. At every turn, they are taken advantage of by someone -- the slumlords, politicians, police, courts, neighbors, the world economy, sometimes even the nuns. Perhaps the most frustrating feeling is the realization of how powerless these people are. But they don't succumb. They keep plugging away. As Katherine Boo says in the author's notes, these slumdwellers are neither mythic nor pathetic. They are clever, bold, innovative, and persistent.

But their stories don't always turn out for the best. Mostly, that they survive at all is victory. Multiply their stories by the millions of others living in the slums of India (and Nigeria and Brazil and many other places) and it would be easy to surrender to pessimism. It's difficult to read just how hard life is for these people. But maybe that's what makes it so important to read as well.

The story is nonfiction, but it's told in a narrative fashion similar to fiction. There's the resemblance to a plot in this straightforward account of several eventful years in the lives of everyday people living in a slum. We're privy not only to the private affairs of these people, but to their private thoughts and feelings, too.

I've visited India multiple times, enough to know that even if you visit on business or tourism and never set foot in the slums, you are still bound to see enough poverty to give credence to what Katherine Boo writes about. A reader has to wonder how many liberties the author has taken for the sake of filling in the story. I'll let others worry about that. For me, the overall impact makes this book irresistible. Strong stuff. It makes me feel small to quibble over the comparatively minor challenges in urban redevelopment faced by us in Richardson, Texas.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is available for download in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library. :-)

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