The Searing Grace of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”

I have rarely encountered such searing and graceful prose – poignant description, robust characterization, plot-lines that are rife with tension and yet are controlled with exquisite pacing.

 If I didn’t know otherwise, I would laud this book as one of the finest novels that I have encountered in years. What astounds me even more so, is that it is not a work of the imagination but rather it’s journalism—incredibly insightful and gripping journalism that seamlessly integrates individual/family/community stories with political/economic/ethical context analysis. It is a passionately told story about economic and social injustice that is never tediously didactic but rather is constantly and engagingly informative and motivating.

“Narrative nonfiction”, as it is described on the cover, was a new term to me before I started reading “Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”

I understood what was meant by “creative nonfiction” which Wikipedia defines as “a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.” But there is a nuanced and significant difference between the two, at least in my mind. Creative nonfiction seeks to animate a historically accurate event or personage with dramatic stylistic tools that sanction a good deal of artistic license.

What Katherine Boo has done is to so integrate herself as a journalist into the lives of individuals, families and communities in Annawadi (an Indian slum outside the Mumbai Airport) that the story is told in the residents’ own words. As Boo describes in an Author’s Note at the end of the book:

The events recounted in the preceding pages are real, as are all the names…I documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes, and photographs…I used more than three thousand public records…when I described the thoughts of individuals, those thoughts have been related to me and my translators or to others in our presence…I had to do repeated interviews in order to understand the complexity of someone’s views…

It is Katherine Boo’s consummate skill as a writer that the pathos, joys, and crises of these lives are related in prose that is crystal clear and yet robustly lyrical, fulsome and yet economical, dispassionate and yet brimming with heart and soul.

Narrative nonfiction, unbeknownst to me at the time, was I suppose the writing style that I was using in my memoir “August Farewell – the Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance” that tells the story of the sudden cancer death of my gay partner and in which vignettes of our long loving relationship are integrated into the chronology of the sixteen days between Bill’s diagnosis and his death.

Despite the many touching words of appreciation that I have received from readers of “August Farewell”, I wish that I had a fraction of Katherine Boo’s skill as a writer. I count it as one of the blessings of this year that I have encountered her “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” and without hesitation I recommend it to anyone interested in experiencing exquisite writing while gaining profound insight into the world in which we live. 

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For information on Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” see:

For information on my memoir “August Farewell – the Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance” see my website which includes description, a YouTube video book trailer, reviews, readers’ comments, and photographs:

You can follow me on Twitter at: @authordhallman


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2 responses to “The Searing Grace of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”

  1. Pingback: Blogging Trips – the New Short-Term Missions | Communicating.Across.Boundaries

  2. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is one of, if not the most skilled work of writing I have ever had the privilege to read. It is so eloquent and engaging it stuns me it is non-fiction. The dedicated time and effort involved in gathering the information and creating the book will humble any serious writer or lover of great writing. Every compassionate person’s life will be enriched by reading this book.

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