Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers


I mentioned last week that I’m reading some contemporary award-winning works to catch me up on more recent writing styles (as compared with the books mostly written before 1850 that I studied for my doctoral comps). I started with this year’s Pulitzer winner, The Orphan Master’s Son. And this week I moved on to read the nonfiction winner of the National Book Award, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine (Kate) Boo.

Though this is Boo’s first book, she is no stranger to the world of journalism and certainly no rookie reporter. In fact, she's a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post with a reputation for writing about poor and disadvantaged people.

Thirteen years ago, Boo wrote a series for The Post about group homes for mentally retarded people that won her the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The judges said her writing “disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.”

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she continues writing about the poor and disadvantaged, but she changed her setting from D.C. to the slums of Mumbai. And the result is something akin to “Dickens meets Dreiser in India.” Except—wait! The story's not fiction. Yes, it's a murder mystery, but it really happened. And the reader actually knows who “done” it. The suspense comes in wondering what will happen to the likable, falsely accused kid caught in the web of corruption that is Mumbai's infrastructure.

Boo moved to India to live among her subjects for three years so she could conduct the sort of on-the-ground, in-person, documented research that makes her narrative nonfiction so compelling. And although Boo logged thousands of hours’ worth of interviews, she never interjects herself into the story. Consequently, Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Ghandi, described Beautiful Forevers as “the best work of narrative nonfiction I’ve read in twenty-five years.” At times in reading Boo's nonfiction, I had to remind myself that the story really happened, because she so flawlessly weaved together her plot, dialogue, setting, and characterization.

The book's literary prose, filled with brilliant similes, helps the reader visualize the author's multifaceted characters. But I confess that I had trouble at times keeping track of them all. And I also came away despairing a little, recognizing that no matter what we do to alleviate the plight of the poor, our methods are flawed because we must rely to a great degree on people. Boo writes about how a slumlord “tapped the largess of a prominent American Christian charity, World Vision” to get public toilets (52), seeming to suggest that WV helped empower a corrupt man. She told of a renegade WV social worker who collected money and ran off with it (53). And she mentioned WV clipboards intended as gifts for children that were hoarded by the social workers who were supposed to hand them out (66). So what do we do? Refuse to provide toilets or school supplies? Perhaps. (As someone who helps provide humanitarian aid, such questions are always on my mind.) But perhaps we do risk/benefit ratios and determine to keep trying.

Despite the poverty, suffering, and seeming callousness about human life, Boo has provided a glimpse of India that's hopeful. Despite its many despair-evoking scenes, Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows that even with all the odds stacked against them, some people still long to be good. And, I would add, they know their government won't save them.

But then, neither can or does ours save us. Yes, I'm thankful that I live where I do—this book, like The Orphan Master's Son, made me even more grateful. But we must never trust in "chariots" or "horses" or governments if we truly know in whom we have believed. 



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