four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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0

744577.pngKatherine Boo won a Pulitzer Prize for her work at the Washington Post and is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is her first book.

The Topic: Near the Mumbai airport, the slums of Annawadi are home to 3,000 residents on a fetid half acre of lean-tos and open sewers. Only six Annawadians hold full-time jobs; the poorest dine on weeds and rats within sight of the city’s wealthy tourist district. Between 2007 and 2011, Katherine Boo uncovered their stories. At the center of her tale is Abdul, a Muslim teenager who supports his parents and eight siblings by selling garbage. By slum standards, the family is fairly prosperous. But when Fatima, a vindictive one-legged woman, accuses Abdul of beating her and setting her on fire, he learns there is little hope for justice within India’s corrupt court system. Annawadi, Boo concludes, represents "a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late."
Random House. 256 pages. $27. ISBN: 9781400067558

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Throughout such careful documentation, the one element missing—very much to her credit—is Boo herself. … Beautiful is pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible about specific individuals who populate a clearly demarcated section of ever-changing Mumbai." Terry Hong

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a riveting, fearlessly reported portrait of a poverty so obliterating that it amounts to a slow-motion genocide. … One of Boo’s great achievements here is that in the interest of objectivity, she suppresses the rage she must feel at the political and economic machinery that set all this in motion." Jeff Giles

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"By simply describing Abdul’s experiences at the hands of India’s criminal justice system, she reveals a degree of casual corruption that would stun even the most jaded cynic. … By accepting the amount of sewage, literal and moral, that pervades life in Annawadi, she delivers something much more powerful than an outright indictment." Janet Maslin

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Boo … is surpassingly good at slipping inside the skins of those she chronicles. … Boo puts herself on the podium with the best writers of the genre, Krakauer and Orlean, Langewiesche and Larson." Nancy Rommelmann

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A]s good a reporter as she is, Boo is an even better storyteller: this bravura work of nonfiction reads more like a novel for the gratifying completeness of its characters and the journey they travel over. … Boo’s writing skills are such that she can render even a dirty slum lovely (‘The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast’), and on a deeper level, extract sublime irony from a seemingly straightforward news story." David Takami

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] searing account, in effective and racy prose, that reads like a thrilling novel but packs a punch Sinclair Lewis might have envied. … The raw pathos to the stories of the characters in Behind the Beautiful Forevers is of the kind usually found in great fiction, except that, as Boo confirms, they are all real, down to their names." Shashi Tharoor

Salon.com 4 of 5 Stars
"There are cult filmmakers and cult novelists, but Katherine Boo may be the world’s only cult journalist. … [A] scrupulously true story" Laura Miller

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"[O]riginal, detailed and so unbearably sad, it makes Slumdog seem almost like a romantic comedy." Deirdre Donahue

Critical Summary

The New York Times described Boo as "one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction, a documentarian with a superb sense of human drama." For three years, she immersed herself in the hopeless, helpless world of the Annawadi slums, filming, interviewing, and slogging through endless reams of public records. Although the story she tells is true, the narrative plays out like a richly plotted novel and puts a human face on the tragic side of globalization. The result is a book that neither judges nor preaches but still manages to leave an indelible impression. By any standard, it is a stunning achievement.