Book of the week: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
In her stunning debut as a nonfiction author, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter presents an “unblinkingly honest” portrait of life in an Indian slum.
(Random House, $27)
“Remember the title of Katherine Boo’s new book,” because you will eventually see it shortlisted for some “Very Important Literary Prizes,” said Terry Hong in CSMonitor.com. In her stunning debut as a nonfiction author, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter presents an “unblinkingly honest” portrait of life in Annawadi, a swamp of a slum tucked behind a concrete wall next to Mumbai’s airport. In a place where 3,000 men, women, and children crowd a single half-acre and everyday dramas include “explosive violence fueled by religion, caste, and gender,” the 11-member Husain family easily earns the story’s central focus. By the time a neighbor sets herself on fire and frames the Husains’ primary earner for her murder as she’s dying, readers have begun a journey from which they’ll be “unable to turn away.”
“Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. Boo spent more than three years immersing herself in the life of Annawadi, and she got to know its residents intimately. “Without condescending to her subjects in the slightest,” she details both their dreams and their astonishing acts of self-destruction. Among the slum’s many garbage scavengers, Abdul Husain is a veritable expert at trading in refuse, while the one-legged woman who frames him once drowned a baby daughter in a bucket. When the woman does herself in with kerosene and a match, Boo delivers the scene “with devastating understatement.” Later, in “simply describing Abdul’s experiences at the hands of India’s criminal justice system,” Boo “reveals a degree of casual corruption that would stun even the most jaded cynic.”
There’s a common theme to everything Boo writes, said Patrick French in Bloomberg Businessweek. The poor, we learn, face the same concerns as the rest of us—“difficult neighbors, marital infidelity, bosses who don’t keep their promises.” Yet everyday tribulations regularly escalate because the “margin for error” in these lives is so narrow: Any day might be the day a bulldozer levels your home, or the day a family member is “arrested arbitrarily, requiring the payment of a huge bribe.” Occasionally, Boo’s attention to small details causes her to lose sight of the broader changes remaking India year after year. But while her book “may fall short in terms of context and history,” it “works in close-up.” In fact, “it feels like a punch in the stomach.”