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As you undoubtedly know by now I am a fiction reader. Ninety percent of what I read is fiction. The few exceptions to that rule are usually memoirs, which we must admit are a type of fiction, too. The facts and the truth are not always the same, but that’s an opinion that could only be held by a lover of fiction. I love nonfiction readers and their thirst for the facts. They read to learn, and they want to learn the real story. Most of the time, I don’t have a lot of use for the real story. Still, I do a lot of browsing in the nonfiction section, and I often check out nonfiction titles. I want to be an engaged global citizen, and I try to be informed. Really, I do! So many nonfiction titles lack a narrative, though, and I find them really hard to wade through. So, when I do discover a nonfiction title that reads like a beautifully crafted story—so much so that you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re reading nonfiction—I’m really thrilled.
Narrative nonfiction is the perfect classification for these types of book, as their authors incorporate a carefully planned story arc to effectively build tension and develop characters. I recently finished a brilliant piece of narrative nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. Boo is staff writer for The New Yorker, focusing her attention on issues of poverty, opportunity, and education. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2000 and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002. In 2004, she received a National Magazine Award for feature writing for her article “The Marriage Cure,” an exploration of the Oklahoma marriage initiative that viewed marriage as the cure for poverty and crime.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes place over a period of four years in Annawadi, a slum adjacent to the bustling international airport of Mumbai. Mumbai is India’s largest city, home to 15 million residents and one-third of the world’s poor. Boo’s decision to delve into the lives of people living in one particular slum makes the book exceptionally readable. Her own voice is completely absent, save for the author’s note at the end in which she explains her decision to focus on Annawadi:
Although I had no pretense that I could judge a whole [country] by a sliver, I thought it would be useful to follow the inhabitants of a single unexceptional slum over the course of several years to see who got ahead and who didn’t, and why, as India prospered. I tried to compensate for my limitations… by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked. (249)
The years of listening, studying, and researching are evident.
The “beautiful forevers” refers to an advertisement for ceramic tiles that tourists would see when they departed from the airport. This large billboard promised ceramic tiles that would remain beautiful forever, and just behind the placard were some of the poorest people in the world. Although told in third person, the narrative alternates among the people living in Annawadi—Slumlords and children, the disabled, and the sick, the college bound and the street pavement-bound—all striving and struggling in a seemingly impossible environment, an environment which happens to be next to some of the most opulent, extravagant hotels in the world. This juxtaposition is hard to avoid, and lest you think it’s a problem far removed from the western world, Boo reminds us that “the scholars who map levels of disparity between wealthy and impoverished citizens consider New York and Washington D.C. almost as unequal as Nairobi and Santiago” (248).
Boo offers no easy answers, but is instead trying to understand herself why such disparities do not pose practical problems. Why do unequal societies not implode? What happens to turn someone’s hope for a better life into resignation and acceptance? As Abdul, one of the main figures in the book, notes: “For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting… But now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is” (241). Boo provides an honest, unflinching look at the real lives that are often invisible—sanitized by do-gooder types, criminalized by corrupt governments, or covered up by the “beautiful forevers” of prosperity.