Sunday, March 18, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers among 2012's best books

Book 36:  Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the best book yet to appear in 2012.

It's all but certain to make numerous "best of" lists when December arrives.

 It is a non-fiction account of the lives of the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport.  The airport, with its gleaming luxury hotels, is separated from the slum by a high wall. On the wall, advertisements for Italianate tiles promise floors that will be beautiful forever.

Behind the wall, behind the "beautiful forevers," life is precarious. Families struggle to scratch out a meager existence; toiling for hours for a handful of coins. Many, including children, must resort to theft.  Everyone is surrounded by disease, alcoholism, corruption and -- worst of all -- indifference.

Boo focuses primarily on two families.  

Abdul, a Muslim boy in his late teen, belongs to a family determined to improve their lot.  Each day, Abdul sorts through garbage purchased from other denizens of Annawadi, which he then sells to recyclers.  

Abdul and his family are caught up in a legal nightmare that rivals Jarndyce and Jarndyce when a neighbor, angered by the family's relative prosperity, sets herself on fire.  Abdul, his father and sister are charged with inciting the neighbor to commit suicide.

Asha is also struggling to secure a better life for herself and her children.  From an impoverished childhood in rural India, Asha has become a political fixer in Annawadi.  Cross her palm with sufficient coin and problems have been known to vanish. 

Her daughter, Manju, is about to become the slum's first resident to receive a college degree.

Critical accounts of Behind the Beautiful Forevers note that the book reads like a novel. It does, which is to say that to Boo the story is of primary importance.  The author allows the people of Annawadi to tell their own story, in their voice. Boo is simply a conduit -- an extremely gifted conduit -- who permits the narrative of their lives to unfold with compassion, understanding and absent judgement.

In this way, Behind the Beautiful Forevers shares common ground with Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star and Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit.  

It is one of those rare works of non-fiction that weave together a powerful and magical narrative. A narrative that takes us into the lives of the residents of a Mumbai and allows us to understand that their hopes and dreams, their faults and failures, are not so different from our own.

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