Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Boo)

Yes, I know it won the Pulitzer Prize (, but I wanted more out of this book. I think it did more to make me think about what we can expect from narrative non-fiction. I look for the telescope effect – a good mixture of the anecdotal and analytical, the personal and political. Boo leans hard on the personal and anecdotal, especially in the first two parts of the book. Perhaps it’s because I’m familiar (in general and from other reading) with the world she’s describing that I wanted more of the 5,000 foot view. For example, she asks some great questions in her author’s note – “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?” (And its corollary – how can it be changed?) “Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?” I wish she’d intertwined more of her research on those questions as she told the story of Abdul and his longing to be ice. (His ice vs. dirty water image will stay with me.) In other words, maybe I was hoping for a different kind of book. I certainly was grateful that it was not another one of these recently popular ‘white man goes to poor place, has epiphany, ‘helps’ people of color, writes book (seriously, there should be a section for these in every bookstore), and Boo explains how she deliberately sought to avoid that formula. As much as she longs for those in the undercity, especially the children, to be able to preserve their “ethical imaginations,” I imagine that they want to have food, water, and health care first. And despite the subtitle of her book, there doesn’t seem to be much hope.


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