Best Travel Books Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine BooEach month, I share a recent travel book I have read. Many books in my queue focus on specific places because they offer a framework understanding of a country or culture I hope to visit. This month’s nonfiction book gives a deeper understanding of a country I hope to return to again: India.

Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a sad read; I emphasize that up front because it is a bit depressing really. Boo is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who moved to India with her husband. While living in Mumbai, she documented and followed the lives of several families within one particular slum in the city, the Annawadi slum. Her story weaves together the lives of these people in a way that reads as a novel.

Her journalistic background lends her distance and objectivity in the writing—as she documented their situation (and often their plight) over the years, she observed. She wrote from that objectivity, and the clarity of the writing shows she tried to wipe her own ego and emotions from the narrative. The book is not about fixing them or the situation, it is about their truth. The result is an unvarnished look at life in the one of the poorest regions of the world.

The film Slum Dog Millionaire was many people’s first introduction into what life is like for those living in a slum, and that was Hollywood’s version. The grim details of the book weigh at points as you are always aware that these events are true. The injustices happened to real people, as did their successes.

There were times I left the book untouched on my Kindle for days because it was an emotionally difficult read. But it’s valuable for that very reason. Great literature challenges you to look at your preconceptions of the world and widen your thinking. Boo’s book does just that. It takes a topic that is glossed over in mainstream travel narrative and she adds a very real element to the struggles the world’s poorest people face.

What could bring the book down though, ultimately brings the redemption. Though there is great struggle and heartache for the families chronicled, each chapter reinforces the strength and resiliency of the human spirit … to an extent. It also just ends. In fiction, the characters win in some way, they overcome the injustice of the world and come out changed, better. Boo finishes the story arc for each character, for the primary challenge they faced throughout the book, but then it ends without an epilogue and a neat way to wrap it up.

This is a serious book, and one of the few nonfiction books I have read about the subcontinent that gives such an honest window into the culture, people, and hurdles faced when extreme wealth and extreme poverty battle within a single country, a single city, and for the land of a single slum.

If you’re keen to read more, you can find the book on Amazon.

Book Giveaway

I offered a free copy of Behind the Beautiful Forevers to newsletter subscribers and readers.

Bonus entry question:

If you want to perhaps share why India interests you, it makes the comments more fun to read!

That’s it, no other obstacles to jump through, though if you’re keen to share this post or go like the ALA Facebook page I wouldn’t stop you. :)

Read my past travel book reviews, or browse my selection of the best books about countries around the world. And read my reviews policy and disclaimer. Although I occasionally allow a company or author to host a giveaway, I sponsored this month myself.:)

14 Responses to Best Travel Books Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

  1. Mariellen Ward October 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    So sorry I missed this contest as this book is on my must read list!

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

      Oh no! If you’re back home you should consider checking out from the library, or see if your library’s Kindle loan program has it –that is my go to! I think you will really resonate with the book though because she doesn’t attach stereotypes, but instead just a look at a side of the country that is hard to see from the surface.

  2. Peter Lanzarone October 14, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    I like the Cover Photo……….Sometimes you can judge a book by its Cover………..I`m sure its a great story….And its coming from a Florida Girl……….I want to read it…………And I will let you know how I like it…

  3. Audrey October 12, 2013 at 1:40 am #

    I would like to read this book. I have always been interested in India, especially since I went there three years ago. Books that make me think and introduce me to different cultures are my favorite. Its important to me to learn how other people live so I can have empathy. Please sign me up!:)

  4. Jen October 11, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    I also love reading about other cultures and places I may visit one day. So, sign me up! :)

  5. Kate October 11, 2013 at 2:03 am #

    I’d love an e-copy, I’ve been meaning to read it and my kindle goes where I go!

  6. Pat October 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    Love this type of novel and would really be thankful to receive it.

  7. Mike Ramey October 10, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    Shannon, this book has been on my radar for about a year. Thanks for the review and a chance to win a copy!

  8. William Michael October 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” sounds like a photograph. It has no past and no future. It is a snapshot of the present. My photography teacher never let us edit our pictures. He said “What you photograph is what you see” That is what we want our viewers to observe. The past and future is for us to imagine. The book of the presence gives us the base to spring forth our imagination.

  9. Brock Mikosky October 10, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    Shannon, I hope all is well. India is of particular interest because of the dichotomy of the descriptions people give. It will kill you and drawn you in…it will be your favorite place and the worst place you’ve ever visited. This only serves to make me more curious.

  10. Dan Rogers October 10, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    As someone who studied history, I always wanted the unvarnished truth so as to better understand people and issues in the past. But when reading of the past, the emotional element is of a more intellectual nature; in contrast, reading a nonfiction narrative of current events leads to a more visceral response, and as a reader you are aware that the struggles of the characters continue after you finish reading. Books like “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” can aid us in understanding painful current struggles of real people, and keep a small focus on the truly needy. As difficult as it might be to read, this is the type of book that can help us address the suffering of people who are so often out of mind. I look forward to reading this book; thanks for the review.

  11. Riana Autumn October 10, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    This book sounds really intense but like it would be very worthwhile to read. India has been on my travel list for quite some time and I would love to know a little bit more about the country, besides the pictures I tend to lust over, before I work my way over there. Thanks for hosting this awesome give-away!

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      Hi Riana, you’re the book winner! I will shoot you an email now to followup with what format you’d like. Congrats and thanks for entering :)

  12. Denise October 10, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    Thanks for the chance to win this book and for the warning in reading it

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