If book groups haven’t been asking for Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo yet, be prepared. They will.
This book is a marvelous piece of narrative nonfiction that will appeal to many readers. It’s journalist Boo’s first book and unlike other journalist nonfiction, Boo adopts an unusual point of view to tell the story of Annawadi, a slum resting precariously on the property lines of the Mumbai, India International Airport and its residents.
Boo carefully follows the lives of several characters: Asha, Abdul, Fatima, and Zehrunisia. Abdul, Zehrunisia’s son, is one of the most successful “entrepreneurs” in Annawadi. He operates a lucrative recycling business. Asha is a whip-smart manipulative woman who sees politics as her way up and a way out for her beautiful daughter, Manju. The slum “crazy woman,” Fatima, is cause for pity, entertainment, and anger. She has a disability that has placed her on crutches for her adult life and a volatile personality that has her sinking into wild fits of rage and despair. Her actions cause a great deal of tragedy and injustice in the lives of Zehrunisia and Abdul.
Recently the Kansas City Public Library/Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club discussed Behind the Beautiful Forevers and the numerous participants had so much more to say than could be printed in the follow up story. They were very interested in discussing the characters’ and their hopes for a better life.
Readers were also fascinated with the point of view Boo adopted to tell the story. One reader felt it was very cinematic, that she could easily see all the characters and their emotions. Another reader felt that Boo put a great deal of distance between herself and Annawadi in order to present a very accurate portrait of this undercity.
There was much debate about the author’s intent. Some readers felt that Boo was purposely distancing herself in order to not be judged condescending of her subject matter or painting a romanticized picture of slum poverty. Readers noticed the only places in the book where the tone was hopeful was in the conversations had by the characters. Otherwise, the overall tone was matter-of-fact.
Not one reader said they didn’t like the book. All were very glad to have read it and some said it was a difficult book to read. Put this one in the rotation for next year.