The first book I read in 2015 was Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, which I thought was a novel. I chose it while travelling, from the public library’s Overdrive menu, via iPhone.
Though I LOVED being able to access the library from afar, I found Overdrive ridiculously difficult to navigate, especially on sketchy Burmese wifi. I basically clicked on the first book I recognized. Before beginning Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I knew that (a) it had a wonderful title and (b) John Green liked it.
The book follows a collection of characters through their heartbreaking daily lives in a Mumbai slum. It was one of those stories that made me wonder, the entire time I read, “how did the author know all this?”
Then I reached the final pages and… it’s real! All the stories are true, the characters are actual people, and the author spent YEARS interviewing, videotaping, and recording in the slum.
The fates of the characters were already wrenching when I thought they were fictional. Perhaps because I’d just left Burma, also a place where many live in dire circumstances, I felt as if someone had taken me out behind the bamboo hut and kicked the stuffing out of me.
I’m making the book sound rather depressing, but it’s an inspiring look at the extent of human determination. And a reminder that we can’t always categorize villains and heroes, winners and losers, survivors and victims. Everyone, in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is a little of each.
If you happen upon it in Overdrive or elsewhere, it’s a wonderful and eye-opening read.