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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 13 June 2017
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of life in Annawadi, a slum situated close to Mumbai Airport. In the prologue we meet Abdul Hussain, a teenager who scratches a living for his family by sorting scrap scavenged by his neighbours and selling it for recycling. At the start of the book, he is hiding from the police, fearful of being arrested for complicity in the attempted suicide of one of his neighbours.

As the story opens out, we are introduced to the wider population of the slum, Asha, an unscrupulous fixer, desperate to climb out of the degradation and prepared to do just about anything to escape, her beautiful daughter Manju, who hopes that education will enable her to escape from an arranged marriage, Sunil, a young but resourceful scavenger, the one legged sexually voracious Fatima.

The story spreads both backwards and forwards from Adbul’s flight from the law. It provides an account of how he came to be hiding under a pile of rubbish, and also the story of what came after.

At its heart this book provides a fundamentally horrific picture of modern India. It is a society divided between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It is a world of endemic corruption, where courts are not courts of justice but courts of law, and the law is driven by those who can pay for it. The slum is not a community, but a brutal dog eat dog world where the inhabitants gleefully seek to climb to the top of the rubbish heap by stepping on each others’ faces. It is a society in which external aid is cynically manipulated to divert funds to the powerful, not those in need.

This brings me to the most shocking thing about the book. I read it for my book club, and so knew nothing about it when I picked it up. This is not, or is not positioned as, a work of fiction. This is a documentary. Author Katherine Boo is a journalist who worked within the slum, extensively interviewing, and filming the inhabitants. With that in mind, I find it quite difficult to criticise this brutally dispassionate account of a modern Dante’s Inferno. Living in the affluent west what right I have to form any opinion of an account of a society of such extreme poverty, degradation and struggle. At one level it is difficult to justify a world in which people are forced to live like this and to justify one’s own privileged position within it.

Within that, the book for me posed some huge questions. Is this an inevitable part of development? Is it an inescapable part of economic advancement that societies must live through periods of extreme inequality in which huge numbers of people endure an horrendous existence? Is India, along with other developing countries, living through what countries like Britain experienced in Victorian times? Alternatively, is the horror of Annawadi a more modern consequence of globalisation?

It is in asking these questions, that I begin to get a little more uncomfortable with the book. Of course, the author has been enormously brave in producing the work, and it is something I could never do. And she has provided a clear factual, unemotional journalistic work. And she and her husband are bringing benefits to the slum. I just question whether a dispassionate account is the right response to what she has seen. Anger, disgust, zeal would seem more appropriate than calm observation.

The other problem I have with it is that it doesn’t really work structurally. I don’t like books where non-linear structure is used to make up for lack of narrative. Here there is no point to starting in the middle, other than to add complication. Secondly it is a hugely confusing book. It feels like a nature documentary, as the textual camera switches regularly between different inhabitants it is at times difficult to keep track of who is whom. Finally, there is no sense of closure, Boo just leaves her story in mid air, with no sense of resolution. I recognise that these features could also be seen as strengths. The confusing nature of the book reflects life in the slum, and the lack of a conclusion is just real life. However not even to reveal the result of the central court case is a very strange choice.

So, in what is portrays, this is an admirable and important book, it’s just that I’m not convinced by the way the author tries to use the conventions of fiction to write a documentary.
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on 12 March 2015
The people that Katherine Boo interviewed were poor beyond the comprehension of us in the west. Even those who were above subsistence levels couldn't protect their babies from rat bites, nor could they expect any security from a corrupt state. These people were not however, passive victims, but the tragedy is that all their hard work and ingenuity could only gain them an extra few pence per day.

The author tells the slum dwellers' own stories, including the details that were important to them. She interweaves personal accounts with carefully researched information about the social and political landscape. Like the rich, the poor were also adept at exploiting these situations for their own ends, which is why governmental and charity grants achieved little in the long term.

Although the content of the book is superb, I didn't much like the author's style, which was too wordy. It seemed to me that she was often too concerned with finding a startling image, when it would have been better to present the facts in a straightforward way. This was not just an irritation. For me, it detracted from the authentic voices of the slum dwellers.
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on 15 January 2015
Really interesting and insightful account of life in an Indian slum - having been several times I could really visualise the scenes described. It can take some time to get into the story but I would thoroughly recommend it if you have an interest in the country.
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on 22 March 2013
I must confess I picked this book up with some trepidation. The subtitle - "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum" - and the cover (of my copy), a young boy sprinting up steps into bright sunlight, made me think it might be another of those. You know, those. The post-Slumdog reportage. "Yes, conditions in Indian slums are appalling. But wait! Look at the way the children run and play! The sights, the smells! The way they can still laugh, in the face of such hardship. The way they just get on with the life they've got!" (What else are they supposed to do?) "So life-affirming!"
The hope of it all!
"Slumdog" is a good film. And a lot of the reportage is also good, and if it's not it's generally well-meaning. But I find it all a bit discomfiting. It's human to believe in hope, but it seems to me that, as Westerners, focussing on the small hopes that slum-dwellers have might be a convenient way of deflecting our own guilt that people have to live this way. (And the likes of Amitabh Bachchan castigating "Slumdog" for focussing on a small part of Indian life might be an Indian way of doing the same thing).
I thought this book might be more of the same. It wasn't.
Boo is no polemicist. She's a true journalist, and she tells this story with a journalistic dispassion, making it all the more affecting. (She has a novelist's eye, though; at times, the prose is breathtaking.) The stories are set in a small slum, rather than one of the giant cities-within-a-city like Dharavi; a wise choice, as she manages to paint a picture of a whole community, almost like a small village. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, and at times it's downright confusing. But even this makes sense. After all, urban India is a confusing place, teeming with people.
Despite the wonderful writing, there were times when I felt I could not go on. When I read about the disease and the filth and children being bitten by rats as they slept. The fungus "like butterfly wings" that grows on feet in the monsoon season. The exploitation and corruption, the abuse of slum-dwellers by the authorities, the abuse of slum children by their own families. The unsolved murders and streets-sweepers left to die on the pavements, the infanticide and the many suicides. And the hope - what there is of it - is almost the worst. That a family, pursued by a rotten judicial system, might not go to prison for a crime they did not commit. That one slum-dweller might, just possibly, scramble over others and into a very slightly less hardscrabble life.
I cried again and again. I became very angry. Occasionally, I laughed out loud. At times I was so scared for the characters that I felt ill with it. And when I had finished, I thought about them all for a long time, and wondered what they are doing now, the ones that survived. Because, of course, there's no story-book ending. Jamal does not win his millions. He doesn't get his Latika. The story might end, but life in the slum staggers and claws and bites and struggles on.
The people of the slum do questionable things - sometimes terrible things - to survive. But I think there is hope. They also do good things. That people forced to live like this could ever be decent, live by any kind of moral code, gives one hope of a sort.
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on 9 September 2017
Started reading this when I was in Mumbai. Would recommend it even if you aren't planning a trip to India.
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on 10 October 2017
Boring. Very boring book, very disappointed.
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on 3 March 2017
Everyone should read this book
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on 22 April 2017
This is an incredible book. Very well written.
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on 16 September 2012
I bought this book for my husband - at his request. He enjoyed it very much and said it was the most moving book he had read in ages. It's currently being read by our 21 year old daughter who seems just as touched by it. I am looking forward to my turn.
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on 4 April 2017
such a deep book. Wow Katherine Boo.. it was an incredible read.
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