Tag Archives: Harlem

“The Kid” by Sapphire

Title: The Kid
Author: Sapphire
ISBN: 9781594203046
Pages: 384
Release date: July 5, 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC (Hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 2 out of 5

Sapphire’s second work of fiction, The Kid, begins with the funeral of the protagonist of her first novel, Push (my review here). Precious’s son, Abdul, is nine years old, and in the wake of his mother’s death he faces a terrifying world completely alone.

Throughout the book, he is shuttled from one place to another: foster care; a school for orphaned boys; his great-grandmother’s ancient Harlem apartment; his middle-aged sugar-daddy’s upscale place; a downtown artist’s loft; and finally a mental hospital.

Abdul resolves to do whatever it takes to reach his dream of being a successful dancer, but the path to success is not easy. And just when it seems like he has made it, the side of him that he has kept hidden for too long takes over.

The Kid explores the line between victims and perpetrators and the sometimes self-perpetuating violence of rape. Patterns of sexuality as violence control Abdul’s life; he suffers abuse at the hands of his caregivers, and he begins inflicting abuse on other children.

It is impossible to separate his revenge fantasies from his actual life, and he insists that he only does bad things in his “dreams”; he can’t understand why he would be punished for that. Abdul blends reality and fantasy in a way that reminds me of Black Swan; in fact, he even references “Swan Lake” to describe himself at one point.

Identity is a central, if subtle, theme. While his mother, Precious, never let anyone call her by any other name, Abdul changes names like others change clothes. And just as Precious’s identity stood firm despite what others did to her, Abdul’s identity morphs with every name change.

When he is J.J., he is both a victim and a perpetrator of sexual violence. When he is Arthur or Martin, he uses sex for commercial gain. When he is Crazy Horse, he is a vengeful wild man. Abdul is so jealous of the life he could have had, he does not understand that he is choosing to become someone else–to lose himself–every time he gives up his name.

Furthermore, his sexual identity is tangled up in sexual violence. He despises homosexuality but he embraces it at the same time; the only way he knows how to survive is to offer himself to others, usually men.

He is never able to overcome the divide in his mind that threatens to overwhelm him, because he doesn’t really know who he is. His only goal in life is to find acclaim as a dancer–to be a “beautiful black boy” that everyone loves–but he sacrifices too much of himself to get there.

What impressed me more than Precious’s sense of self was her optimism; no matter what life threw at her, she kept going and reaching for a better life.

Abdul, on the other hand, rails against the injustices of his life. He believes that he would have been different–better–if his mother had lived, if he’d known his father, if he’d had more money like other kids, if, if, if.

He yearns for a “normal life,” and he questions why he “can’t just get a full deck like everybody else.” However, he never stops to think about the changes he has the power to make in order to better his life. Because he never accepts who he really is, he is never able to escape his enduring pain.

His dissociative behavior and strange internal dialogue are strong indicators of a schizophrenic antisocial personality disorder. A protagonist like that is hard to like. (Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk.) As the book goes on, it becomes harder and harder to want to hear more about him; Abdul is increasingly and unrepentantly violent as his “dream” world and his real world begin to collide.

I only kept reading because of my obsessive desire to finish a book once I’ve started it. I needed to know what would happen to Abdul. But the ending was far from satisfactory; I really have no idea what happened to him or even who he really is, where his twisted “dreams” end and his life begins. And that’s probably the point–he doesn’t know either–but The Kid pushes this trope a little too far.

Sapphire seems to glory in the casual violence, the disappearing boundaries between pain and pleasure and between sanity and madness. And I get that–I like dark and gritty and uncertain. But she seems more intent on shocking readers with intensely graphic scenes than on inspiring any real emotion.

DeNeen Brown, in a review for The Washington Post, commented that “a sensitive reader may want to put the book down and turn away.” I do not consider myself a sensitive reader, but this book horrified and sickened me; I struggled to finish it, and I felt no closer to understanding Abdul after I’d turned the last page.

And to top it all off, you never find out what happened to Little Mongo, his older sister!

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy The Kid from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Or check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

July 5: “That’s Swell!”
July 11: Sarah Reads Too Much
July 12: Books From Bleh to Basically Amazing
July 14: Dreaming in Books
July 18: Wordsmithonia
July 19: All About {n}
July 21: Reviews By Lola
July 26: Tea Time with Marce
July 27: Take Me Away
July 28: Regular Rumination
August 2: BermudaOnion’s Weblog
Date TBD: Reads for Pleasure

“Push” by Sapphire

Title: Push
Author: Sapphire
ISBN: 9780679766759
Pages: 192
Release date: April 29, 1997
Publisher: Knopf
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

Precious Jones is an illiterate young black woman who has never left her native Harlem. She is pregnant with her second child, a product of rape. For her entire life, she’s been abused and overlooked: her parents have both used her sexually and violently; the school system has failed her; and she’s never had a friend, much less a boyfriend. Now, she’s been suspended from her middle school, and the only option her mother suggests is getting on welfare.

But Precious is not about to give up. She is determined to make her life–and, more importantly, the lives of her children–better. The only thing that scares her is becoming like her parents.

She enrolls in an alternative school, where she begins learning to read and write. Her teacher, Ms. Rain, is kind and supportive, and Precious flourishes in her classroom. Precious strives to be a person worth remembering, worth listening to, worth loving. She compares most of her life to a movie with vampires that act and talk and look like real people, but when their pictures are taken they are invisible:

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am–vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for. I wanna say I am somebody. . . . I talk loud but still I don’t exist.

Precious learns more at the alternative school than simply reading and writing; she learns how to change the direction of her life. Along the way, she meets scores of women who have suffered much as she has, and she finds strength as she struggles to find a better life.

At times, Precious’s honesty is brutal:

How cum I’m so young and feel so old. So young like I don’t know nuffin’, so old like I know everything. A girl have her father’s dick in her mouth know things the other girls don’t know but it’s not what you want to know.

This was not an easy book to read, even though it was short. It will keep you up at night thinking about everything Precious endured and overcame.

This book came highly recommended from many of my friends, in whom it doubtless provoked a strong reaction, but few could put into words exactly how it is so powerful and why I should read it. They tried, of course; I’d heard Push was brutal, brilliant, a must-read, incredibly depressing, and eye-opening. And all of that is true. But what I hadn’t heard is how optimistic a book it is.

The reality of Precious’s life will never go away. The things that were done to her, the injustices that she must suffer for the rest of her life, can never be erased. But despite all of that, Precious perseveres. She hopes, she dreams, she laughs. She is a lesson in optimism for anyone who has faced oppression and abuse.

Push is a powerful book. It exposes the pain of abuse and the injustice of public and social services, but more than that, it presents a strong black heroine who takes her own life into her hands, despite what has and will happen to her.

This was made into an award-winning movie, “Precious,” which I have not yet seen. What did you think–did you read the book or see the movie?

Push is the first of 25 books I’m reading for Bookshelf ROWDOWN! I plan to read an entire row of great but neglected books from my personal collection before July 1, 2012.