“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo had long been on my radar. When a friend told me she was going to be in town for a free talk, it seemed like the perfect time to get around to it. That, and the library queue for it was no longer batsh1t-crazy long.

It’s a non-fiction account by a journalist about a slum in Mumbai, India. It is loosely centered around a death and series of trials, but includes a huge cast of people and tells a much broader story of poverty, corruption, and what people do to get by.

Boo made an interesting choice to narrate in the omniscient third person, but the summary at the end of the exhaustiveness of her research back this up. She didn’t put herself in the story because it wasn’t her story. And I didn’t miss her a bit, because hyper-focused Abdul, runty Samil, power-hungry Asha, and every single one of the others were so complex and interesting. Please forgive my reductive descriptors of these people–read Boo’s book to get the fuller picture.

At her talk, an audience member asked if her book made people’s lives more difficult because she named names and detailed acts of corruption. She responded that one of her goals had been transparency–all her participants had not only given permission, but sometimes insisted on using their full names and details of their lives, to better show the complicated, ethically slippery environment so different from ours in the pampered west.

I very much appreciated Boo’s afterward, in which she specifically calls out her situation of white privilege, and how and why she wrote the book. This was a eye-opening, world-expanding, thought-provoking book. One that, like the best books, leaves me with the question: NOW, what do I do now that I know what I know?

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