Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, 2012
Reviewed by TFI Program Officer Sarah Edwards
Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes place in the Annawadi settlement near the Mumbai airport. The book beautifully stiches together the stories of the different inhabitants, the struggles they face specifically due to the nature of their livelihoods, the natural challenges of family, love, and life, and the corruption and lies of the local government systems.
Winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction, the novel reads almost as a fiction, with intimate dialogues, neighborhood gossip, and rapid-heartbeat tales from scrapes with police by the young boys. The author spent significant time in Annawadi with the individuals featured in the book, and it serves to place the reader directly in her shoes. The reader can feel themselves sitting on a makeshift porch with teenage girls washing dishes, out in the trash heaps with the boys pillaging for scrap metal, or in the center of a neighborhood squabble.
As someone who reads books in great rushing gulps, I found myself needing to take time, read a single chapter and stop. The details painting the scene are so vibrant and the nuance of the individuals’ relationships, goals, and challenges are so complex that it needs to be fully dissected. For anyone who has little experience with the developing world, the book can bring to light a whole sector of the world, and serve to draw connections between those in developed nations and those in these informal settlements. Even for those of us who have experienced the developing world (I spent over two years in Cameroon, West Africa in the Peace Corps), it is an emotional reminder of the ways in which life in the poorest parts of the world is a constant challenge.
On the flip side of the same coin, I found myself frustrated with the deep focus only on the challenges these communities face. On a personal level, I always find the creativity and ingenuity of informal communities to be inspiring, but the book presented it as yet another hardship individuals have to face. Moments that could have brought brightness to the difficult tale instead were portrayed as bleak.
Despite the downfalls, I believe the book to be worth reading. Share your thoughts with us below!
If this book inspires you to take action, consider supporting the Tong-Len Charitable trust, which supports the education of youth from slum communities like Annawadi in order to help them develop their own futures.