Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers Katherine BooIt still seems a bit too soon to start reading fiction again after finishing A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, so I thought I would read some of the non-fiction I’ve been meaning to read for a long time instead. ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum’ by Katherine Boo follows the lives of three families who live in Annawadi, a large slum next to Sahar International Airport in Mumbai which was initially inhabited by migrant workers during the early 1990s. Over the course of three and a half years of reporting in the region between 2007 and 2011, Boo documented the experiences of the slum-dwellers and their day-to-day lives.

Somewhat ironically given that I was trying to avoid fiction this week, ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ has a strong narrative style of prose which could easily be read as a novel. It is well suited to an exploration of the lives of Annawadi’s residents and also ensures that the book is entirely focused on the people living there. There is very little personal commentary from Boo about what she experienced until the Author’s Note at the very end where she outlines how she undertook her research and verified the facts.

The people of Annawadi are portrayed as characters rather than caricatures and their stories are closely observed and told with empathy and compassion whilst avoiding sentimentality. The book introduces the reader to Abdul Husain, a garbage trader in his teens whose family has been involved in a dispute with their one-legged neighbour Fatima who sets herself on fire after becoming enraged by their relative prosperity. After initially surviving, she falsely accuses the Husains of setting her alight and after her death, they lose their business.  Meanwhile, the book also follows other residents in the community including Asha, a teacher who has no qualifications but has ambitions outside of Annawadi for both herself and her daughter.

The title of the book is taken from the wall which separates the slum from the hotels where adverts for “Beautiful Forever” Italian floor tiles are displayed. It is the close proximity of the slum between luxury hotels and a new airport terminal situated on “a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late” which makes this such a poignant and at times unsettling read. As well as the stark contrast between these two settings, a strong hierarchy exists within Annawadi itself where the caste system and the prevalence of corruption dominates everyone’s lives. One of the most terrible examples occurs when Abdul is in the detention centre after Fatima’s death. With no official documents confirming his age, a doctor says that he will declare Abdul to be seventeen years old if he pays him two thousand rupees or twenty years old if he does not, meaning he would be tried for the crime as an adult and less likely to receive a lenient sentence.

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ is a sensitive and subtle portrait of life in modern India. I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy narrative non-fiction, such as  ‘Nothing to Envy‘ by Barbara Demick about life in North Korea.


Filed under Books

28 responses to “Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

  1. Thank you for this reminder. A hard cover copy of this book is buried somewhere on my shelves. It has been a while since I read nonfiction and this book has received such high regard.


  2. I haven’t read non-fiction in a while, but this sounds like a great read!


  3. Thought this was very insightful. The National Theatre turned it into a play (by David Hare) only partially successful, I thought having read the book. I did a post on it in 2014


  4. This was a fascinating story, well told. Good review!


  5. Great review! I thought this was an excellent book which put paid to some slightly romantic notions I’ve seen about living in the Mumbai slums.


  6. Oh that’s a very different cover from the one I read! It’s very eye-catching. And at first I wondered if she had written a new book!


  7. I don’t read that much non fiction these days but this book sounds so extraordinary it’s going on my wishlist immediately. Great review.


  8. I’ve been curious about this book for a long time but garr, my local bookshops ran out out of copies months ago.

    Anyway, I love books set in India but they do sometimes slip into exoticism territory. It’s nice to know Behind the Beautiful Forevers does not succumb to sentimentality and romanticism.


  9. The book made me feel kind of shitty about living in a first world country. And so very sad for the characters.


  10. This sounds captivating! I love non fiction that can almost be read like fiction – I think you’re drawn so much deeper into the world it portrays than the drier text of some non fiction. I loved the first line of this post too, after a particularly great novel sometimes it feels wrong to dive into another world too soon. Like the next book would be a rebound book or something 😉


  11. Violet

    It sounds like an interesting book, but I’m a little concerned about the use of the word ‘slum’ in the sub-title which, the way I see it, is a perjorative term with all sorts of negative connotations, such as crime, filth, poverty, etc. It bothers me that white Westerners use the term to describe low socio-economic areas in other countries. It seems to me that it’s reminiscent of the colonial mentality that sees the inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent as ‘Other’. I don’t know. The word just jumped out at me and made me feel uncomfortable.


    • It’s a word which conjures up lots of unpleasant images although I don’t believe the author used it in the title purely to be provocative as the setting can’t really be called a village or a town either. In the US version of the book, the word undercity is used instead.


  12. Thanks for blogging about this book, which I’d never heard of. It sounds a really impressive bit of research and writing up.


  13. Well, I did enjoy Nothing to Declare and I am just about done with A Little Life…… I’m loving it by the way, but I can see what you mean about not wanting to read more fiction for a while after reading it. It’s going to be tough one to top.


    • A Little Life is the most intense book I’ve read in a very long time – it was the book hangover to end all book hangovers! Non-fiction was the way forward for me and although Behind the Beautiful Forevers wasn’t exactly uplifting either, I didn’t want to read anything too comedic straight after A Little Life.


  14. The Cue Card

    Sounds like great reporting and narrative writing. I need to read this one. It’s been out for years and won awards; there’s no excuse for me!


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