Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

When I told some friends that I was going to be reading Katherine Boo's book Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House), some asked in dismay why I'd read a book that screams "Downer!" I was somewhat taken aback by the question because I thought it inadvertently highlighted how there are some people that can walk this earth completely oblivious or ignorant to the plight of others around the globe. It's partly this reason why I try to read at least one book per year about some other country besides the U.S. This year, Forevers was one of two.

I've never been to India, but I understand the increasing role they play in the global economy. According to the World Bank, India's GDP was averaging 9.5% prior to the 2008 global recession, while the U.S. was averaging about 2.75%. When the recession hit, India's GDP had dropped to 4% and the U.S. rate was below zero. Factor in India's social caste system and its juxtaposing new fortune and the conditions create a horrible tease and grim reality for slum residents.

Perhaps that's nowhere more evident than in the slum of Annawadi, adjacent to the city's main airport, where Boo's tale of life in the Mumbai underclass takes place. The airport gleams with construction walls touting "Beautiful Forevers," hence the title, but behind those walls lie desperate people that want the benefits of their country's newfound economic muscle.

We meet several people along the way, including the ambitious Asha, the area's female slumlord; Abdul, a teenage boy who is the breadwinner for his family by picking garbage; Fatima, a one-legged woman who dies a terrible death; and Kalu, a homeless boy who is killed, but is hardly given a second thought by authorities.

Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writer at The New Yorker and formerly of The Washington Post, writes of the residents' plight as a reporter and it shows. The level of detail in her writing is fantastic and balances a tender sense of care with the grim realities of life in Annawadi. Boo shatters any pre-conceived notions of a slumlord or of religious aid groups in the slum. The book won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2012 and deservedly so.

It is an uncomfortable, heart-breaking and challenging read. There were many times where I had to set the book down and reflect on whether it was hypocritical to read about people so impoverished while I'm curled up on the couch enjoying a Coke on a warm fall day. It is impossible to read this book without feeling some empathy toward the people who were trying everything they could to get out of Annawadi and into India's middle class. It challenges ideas of income inequality, pure free-market capitalism and those it can leave behind.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a difficult and challenging read because of it's inherently brutal subject matter, but it is really well-written and illuminates a side of humanity few in America think about. I am better off for having read it.

While there hasn't been any talk of a film adaptation, though YouTube vlogger and author John Green has called for it, the National Theatre in London just opened a play based on the book. Below is an interview author Katherine Boo gave with the New York Public Library about the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment