Monday, September 14, 2015

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (2012), narrated by Sunil Malhotra

Journalist Katherine Boo's much-lauded book about a slum in Mumbai follows several people who seek opportunities to improve their lives. We first meet Abdul, a young man in the trash-picking and resell business, and then move on to members of his family, friends, and neighbors. Through these specific people and their stories, Boo explores life in the slum of Annawadi, with its crushing poverty and rampant injustice.

I tried reading this book a while back, and stopped after about 50 pages because I felt like I got the point. Then it was nominated for my library's Community Read, so I had to read the whole thing. Take anything I say with a grain of salt, because this really just wasn't the book for me. I didn't dislike it, I just didn't find it very compelling.

There's a story here, or rather, several intertwined stories, but they moved very slowly and I was bored at times. What bothers me most is that I just don't see the point. There's no call-to-action here, nor is there a deep examination of why things in Annawadi are the way they are. The result is just a slice-of-life-in-another-place, which is something I like in theory but this one just didn't do it for me despite the praise and attention it has received.

Many of the reviews focus on the horrible living conditions in the slums, and the lack of opportunity for those who want to improve their lives. I agree this is horrible, especially when you consider the wealth so nearby, but it's not news to me. Shock value seems part of what has garnered so many positive reviews, yet for me that's not enough. I'm not shocked by anything in this world, and I certainly already knew about poverty in India (and other places.) The central story that affected Abdul and his family provided only a loose narrative and didn't hold it together very tightly.

This time I listened to the audiobook version because the narrator is the same guy who read the part of Park in Eleanor & Park. He does a great job here as well, telling these stories of desperation in a way that is empathetic without being melodramatic. I will look for books read by this narrator in the future.

Have you read this? Did you love it? Tell me what I'm missing.


Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I agree with you. I couldn't see why everyone else loved this one either. It was a good subject matter, but I didn't find it compelling either. Perhaps I've read too many amazing books that deal with slum life (A Fine Balance, Shantaram for starters) that this just felt flat and average. At least you're not alone on this one!

3goodrats said...

It's so good to know that I'm not the only one!