Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

By Katherine Boo

(Random House, $27, 254 pages)

Who is this author?

Few authors have a pedigree as outstanding as Katherine Boo’s. She is a staff writer at The New Yorker, perhaps America’s best magazine. She was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service journalism. She also has won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing and a highly coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, better known as a “genius” grant. So when Boo writes, it behooves us to read it. Now she has published her first book, and a tsunami of praise is rolling in.

What is this book about?

If I were to tell you that the book is about the struggles of the very poor in a slum in Mumbai, India, where Boo spent three years researching their lives, you might well say, “I’ll pass on that one.”

But if I were to say it is a book about indomitable spirit, hope for change and betterment, the ability to find humor in the face of despair and the tenderness of human connections, you’d be likely to give it a look.

In fact, it is both. It is a close look at the inhabitants of Annawadi, a makeshift neighborhood of some 300 shacks near the Mumbai Inernational Airport, and their difficult climb to reach what they call “the full enjoy,” made even more challenging by a local tragedy and the global recession. It’s non-fiction, but reads like a novel filled with unforgettable characters.

Why you’ll like it:

Boo, who is married to an Indian citizen, has spent much time there since 2001. In her book, she does several things to draw readers in. Her research is deep and dogged, giving her writing the power of authenticity. Her subject is important: India is an increasingly important player in the world and its innate contradictions of rich and poor need to be understood by readers everywhere. Her writing style is compelling, mixing humor and penetrating insights.

Here is a portion of the book’s opening:

“It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet’s poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.

“Dawn came gusty, as it often did in January, the month of treed kites and head colds. Because his family lacked the floor space for all of its members to lie down, Abdul was asleep on the gritty maidan, which for years had passed as his bed. His mother stepped carefully over one of his younger brothers, and then another, bending low to Abdul’s ear. “Wake up, fool!” she said exuberantly. “You think your work is dreaming?”

Don’t you want to read more? 

What others are saying:

“[An] exquisitely accomplished first book. Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Ms. Boo is not a novelist. She is one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction, a documentarian with a superb sense of human drama. She makes it very easy to forget that this book is the work of a reporter. …. Comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted,” says Janet Maslin, The New York Times.

Says Elle: ““A jaw-dropping achievement, an instant classic of narrative nonfiction…With a cinematic intensity…Boo transcends and subverts every cliché, cynical or earnest, that we harbor about Indian destitution and gazes directly into the hearts, hopes, and human promise of vibrant people whom you’ll not soon forget.”

“Riveting, fearlessly reported….[“Beautiful Forevers”] plays out like a swift, richly plotted novel. That’s partly because Boo writes so damn well. But it’s also because over the course of three years in India she got extraordinary access to the lives and minds of the Annawadi slum, a settlement nestled jarringly close to a shiny international airport and a row of luxury hotels. Grade: A,” says Entertainment Weekly.

 “A tough-minded, inspiring, and irresistible book … Boo’s extraordinary achievement is twofold. She shows us how people in the most desperate circumstances can find the resilience to hang on to their humanity. Just as importantly, she makes us care,” says People, which gives the book four stars. 

When is it available?

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is waiting for you at the Hartford Public Library.

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