Two books, both difficult to review


I’ve thought so much about two excellent books I finished this week – Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo and An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.

They’re very different books – one is about the slums of Mumbai, in India; the other an account of the author’s pregnancy and subsequent stillbirth. Both books are painfully honest, emotionally raw and made me look away. Both tell the story of a death, yet the circumstances around those deaths couldn’t be more different. Both are confronting.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book about filth, corruption, garbage and getting by. Boo has written an amazing book, her writing style journalistic and frank – she never makes it easy for her audience who, more than likely, is reading in relative luxury. Was I expecting a glimmer of hope in Boo’s account of slum living? Yes, of course I was. But it’s not delivered, and left me feeling uncomfortable – I applaud Boo for that. 4/5

It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that didn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.

What to say about An Exact Replica…? I can’t write a review about what is a deeply personal, heartbreaking memoir. I sobbed. I ached for Elizabeth… Grieved for a baby I only glimpsed through her words. She writes beautifully. 5/5

Closure is bullshit.

15 responses

  1. Both of these are on the TBR pile – I really like McCracken’s writing, and BTBF has been there since it came out & I’ve not got round to it. You’ve confirmed I’m going to have to choose a time I feel strong enough for these, but I’ll have to read them – they sound essential.

    • The Boo is fascinating and exceptionally well written – her detail is meticulous (but not overdone and I guess that’s simply because she observed the same people for years to write this book) and on reflection, the thing that makes it different from any other journalistic piece is that she captured the detail PLUS the emotion. The poverty though, will make you despair. And the corruption, at every level, makes you realise that the poverty will never end – there’s nothing that will break the cycle. Someone on Goodreads said they read the book waiting for the moment when one slum-dweller helped another, and there was good feeling all round. It never happens – it’s every person for themselves, no one gives another a leg-up – brutal stuff.

      This was my first McCracken (and it won’t be my last). It’s a short book but I read it over three days – basically, one section was so upsetting that I gave myself a migraine. I know that might sound ridiculous but… I guess my tear ducts operate on a hair trigger. That and the fact that McCracken’s story is very similar to a friend’s, so it was all very real.

      One thing that I’m still struggling with is the fact that people have reviewed the McCracken as ‘self-indulgent’. Who are these people? Do they have no empathy? I found those reviews shocking and then they made me furious. I had to leave Goodreads alone for a few days, for fear of leaving comments that were too strongly worded 🙁

      • That does sound brutal, what a nightmare. Such a cliche to say but it makes me realise how lucky I am – by pure chance I was born into a comparatively wealthy country, with a welfare state.

        I can imagine the McCracken would be deeply upsetting – I blub if the wind changes so I’ll probably be reading it through a blur of tears too. I do think sometimes people limit their empathy for fear of being overwhelmed by feeling – if they stopped to really think about the trauma of a still birth for one minute they’d be astonished that someone has even tried to put it into words.

  2. I get what you mean about having difficulties reviewing this book. Its especially hard to review a memoir since it feels like passing judgement on someone’s life and experiences. The first books looks really good, the cover and the story-line plus the setting. In a way, this is still a review. I will add both books to my TBR.Thanks for sharing this post!

    • I’m loathe to give ratings to memoirs at the best of times – who am I to judge?! Anyway, both of these books were extremely well written and memorable – certainly a good use of your reading time.

  3. I’ve heard of both these and have been especially interested in the McCracken for a while – will have to prepare myself for devastation, but I think it’s so important that women continue to share stories about difficulty surrounding pregnancy and childbirth and other things that we’re “supposed” to find easy and natural and joyous.

    • That’s exactly right and very much why she wrote the book (she goes into some detail about that and particularly how she found great strength in hearing other people’s stories). I am lucky to have had four pregnancies and have four healthy children but over the years, I have seen it all – friends who can’t have babies, miscarriage, very difficult and stressful pregnancies and friends who have lost babies – without question, much of this a hidden and private dialogue, mostly I think because it is simply so painful and we lack any control over such things. McCracken writes –
      “I am that thing worse than a cautionary tale: I am a horror story, an example of something terrible going wrong when you least expect it, and for no good reason…a story so grim and lesson-less it’s better not to think about at all.”

      • Good on her for writing it, then. A friend of mine who’s currently pregnant has been championing more truth-telling among doctors and among women themselves about the experience; I probably won’t send her this to read (!) but it’s definitely the sort of thing she really encourages, and it’s got me interested too.

      • Your friend is quite right about truth. When I had my second baby (via elective c-section) my husband took an amazing photo of my doctor pulling him out – in some senses, it’s a frightening pic! When I did the traditional thing of a thank you gift for the doctor and a photo for her waiting room album, I gave her two pics – the baby wrapped in a blanket, fresh and lovely, and the pic from the delivery. Guess which one she loved best? As it turned out, the photo was used as part of a travelling exhibition about the reality of childbirth (this was more than ten years ago) and it still has pride of place in our album.

  4. I remember seeing Katherine Boo interviewed when the book came out, and I was struck by her presence and her attitude toward the subject.

    I don’t think I can bear to read the McCracken until all three (!) of my new nieces or nephews are born.

    • I’m going to hunt down more on/by Boo online – the Afterword in the book, about how she wrote it, was fascinating (she basically recorded slum life for four years and it just happened that during that time a murder took place).

      Yes, if there are babies on the way in your family, give the McCracken a miss – too distressing. How amazing to have three babies all arriving so close together!

  5. Pingback: Nonfiction November – Reads Like Fiction | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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