The Kid is the sequel to Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push, about a girl called Precious who is routinely sexually abused by both her mother and father. When that novel was turned into the Oscar-winning film Precious in 2009, some critics complained that it represented black people too negatively. The idea that black writers and film-makers should censor themselves on these grounds is, of course, absurd. Push and Precious are no more a guide to “African-American culture” than Trainspotting is to being Scottish.
Claireece “Precious” Jones is obese, illiterate and, at 16, has had two children by her father. She lives in a gruesome tenement flat in Harlem with her sadistic sloth of a mother whose abuse extends to verbal humiliation, force-feeding and physical violence. Push is so gut-wrenching it should be sold with free painkillers. Its sequel, however, is even more hardcore.
At the start of The Kid, Precious is on the verge of dying from Aids. She has risen above the squalor and tragedy of her childhood and educated herself. Her youngest child, Abdul, is the narrator – a bright nine-year-old boy in whom she has instilled good manners, strong moral values and a keen awareness of his cultural heritage. After her death, he still talks to her and relives past conversations in his head. At the funeral, he says to himself: “Everybody think she is dead. I mean dead dead. They don’t know she is talking to me all the time even though she is in the casket box not talking, not moving.” It’s the start of a coping mechanism he relies on more and more, fusing fantasy with reality.
Abdul is left to the mercy of the state and, inevitably, what one fears for him comes to pass. Sapphire being Sapphire, we are not spared anything, and what transpires is sexual abuse on a grand scale – in a foster home, in a Catholic orphanage and even with a middle-aged dance teacher who conveniently presumes that his “lover” is older than 13.
Sex in this novel is invariably ugly and abusive as its author plunges us into the psychology of how the victim can become the perpetrator. Without a loving parent or guardian to show him the boundaries of real affection, sex for Abdul becomes a toxic, compulsive collision of pain and pleasure. So determined is Sapphire to expose the brutalisation of children and so relentless is the book’s bleakness that the effect is sometimes numbing. Abdul becomes delusional, psychotic, disengaging from traumatic situations by transforming them into surreal dreams. And his many nightmarish sequences can get repetitious, especially in the confusion, loss and rage he feels about his mother and unknown father: “Mommy? I’m all alone. You said I was gonna be something. What I’m gonna be, police asking me questions, kicked to the curb like dog shit, roaches crawling up my pants? Where am I going? I hate you, Mommy. I hate you.”
When he discovers a relative, it’s a cranky great-grandmother from Mississippi whom he refers to as “Slavery Days”. She has her own story of abuse to tell, revealing inter-generational cycles of exploitation, degradation and hardship.
Adbul’s moral pathways, not surprisingly, go haywire. One of the abusive priests tells him that sex with children is a “little-little kindness”. Another yells while raping him: “I love you, I love you, black boy! Don’t you know it hurts me to hurt you. Why do you make me hurt you, black boy! I love you! Uhn! Uhn!”
Yep, the paedophile Catholic priests come off the worst; the hypocrisy of the orphanage’s statement of intent laid bare: “We exist here in a community to serve God. And we have chosen to do God’s work by serving orphaned and abandoned children. We will not let you down again for a second or third or even fourth time in your short lives.”
In such a joyless, dangerous childhood, Abdul discovers a passion and talent for dance that, initially at least, proves cathartic. He becomes part of a young troupe of dancers and develops friendships, but when he overhears them talking about him, he feels betrayed. The rage that Abdul carries within him is always boiling away beneath the surface. His language is peppered with the crudest expletives and one fears for him and everyone he comes into contact with. You hope he will triumph over his childhood, and the novel keeps you on tenterhooks.
Sapphire is not your average writer. Brave, bold and uncompromising, she first made her name as a performance poet in New York, and the breathtaking velocity and visceral power of her prose soars off the page. Despite being too eager to shock and offering clear proof that more sometimes is too much, The Kid gives us a story and narrative voice which, like his mother’s before him, should definitely be heard.
Source: The Guardian