(Reveiw) 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 will start this blog the way I start emails to my dearest friend – with a quote from a book, and the citation of that book. The book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.

This book is warm and intelligent, and meticulously researched. When I say that it is warm, though, I don’t mean that it is heart-warming, or that it will make you feel very much that is positive about the world. But it is written from a place of humanity – from a caring about the people who are behind the story – and from a careful, methodical attention to detail.

To sum up the plot, this is a story of three Indian families in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai: Asha’s family, the Hussains and Fatima’s (the One Leg) family. Asha is a local female power broker – eventually a sort of ‘slumlord’, while the Hussains are cast as the ‘normal’ family – or at least the central characters. Fatima is a one-legged woman. Every character is developed strongly, and there is a strong narrative arc, allowing a real plot to unfold – uncommon for non-fiction of its type (even creative non-fiction).

At times, it feels like the book is written too much like a novel, and there are a few places where the colloquial terminology is a bit forced. But overall, the writing is smooth, and the narrative flow allows Boo to put a lot of information in the book without making it feel heavy or weighed down. The effect of this, for me, was that I wanted to find out more – more facts, more stories, maybe read something drier – but not in a way that made me think that this book wasn’t enough. It just made me realise that these are real humans, real lives, and that they deserve attention.

I bought this book before the holidays, in a mass book-buying splurge that will probably fuel much of this blog through the winter. I did not buy it after the rape and murder of a young woman in India, and to tell the truth I didn’t realise that this book would be as topical as it is for reading and thinking about that tragedy. The plot of the book unfolds across the lives of poor people, but the world of BTBF is large: it contains the police, the judiciary, teachers, the airport, local transport… So when I read about that story, and about the five men in custody, I think of the torture scenes. When I hear about their hearings, I think of the courtroom scenes. I’m sure all of India is not exactly like this book, and neither the victim of that rape nor the alleged perpetrators neatly align with anyone in this book. Still, it is a testament to the reality constructed by Boo’s writing that I find it echoing in my head.

It is a strong contender for the best book of this year, or at least that’s how it seems now, week 1 of 2013.

(Incidentally, I’m just following in many others’ footsteps in recommending this book, including the New York Times, Guardian, Slate and many others (less so this WSJ blog).)