The Kid by Sapphire

The follow-up to the novel that became the hit film Precious is so consistently grim you almost want to laugh

Sunday Times, 4 September 2011

I t’s two years since Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push, about an obese, sexually abused 16-year-old from Harlem, was made into a movie called Precious. In the film, Precious learns that she is HIV-positive but her son Abdul — one of two children born after she was repeatedly raped by her father — is not infected with the virus. Sapphire’s new novel picks up the story a few years later, opening with Abdul hiding under the bedclothes because he doesn’t want to go to his mother’s funeral.

Sapphire allows Abdul to tell his own story, using street slang to create a stream-of-consciousness narrative that reminds the reader that she’s a poet as well as a novelist. After his mother’s death, Abdul inhabits a series of violent, abusive milieus. His placement in a foster home ends when he is raped and has his skull fractured by one of the other boys, whereupon a social worker makes an ominous announcement: “You’re going to a new facility for boys in Harlem called St Ailanthus, run by Catholic brothers.” If the novel had a soundtrack we would now hear screeching violins, signalling that the really serious abuse is about to start — and that the problems already evident in the novel are about to multiply.

One of the most successful genres in American publishing is the misery memoir. Books about children being raped or forced to drink bleach fly off the shelves, offering vicarious thrills to readers who are left thinking how lucky they are. The Kid is a fictional version of one of these memoirs and it provides misery by the bucket, clumsily signposted and introducing one stereotypical character after another. The Catholic brothers are sadists who rape the boys at every opportunity; Abdul’s great-grandmother was raped at the age of 10 in Mississippi, fleeing to New York where she was recruited to work in a brothel.

New characters barely appear before they’re being asssaulted or assaulting someone themselves, making the heavy-handed point that abuse turns children into abusers. Abdul grows up into a sensationally lithe dancer in an experimental ballet troupe but he doesn’t fit in with the rich kids who bankroll it. His Japanese-American girlfriend My Lai, who’s named herself after the Vietnam massacre, was abused by her wealthy adoptive father — You see? It doesn’t happen only in poor families — and is trying to heal herself through performance.

hard not to laugh. Among countless gems, I savoured the moment when Abdul’s great-grandmother is about to throw herself out of a window until she’s transfixed by a woman’s voice on the radio. She asks the singer’s identity and is told: “That’s Billie Holiday, she rule.” I don’t know if Sapphire has read Voltaire but what we have here is pretty much Candide in New York, without the crucial element of irony.

Hamish Hamilton £12.99

 

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