Sapphire’s “The Kid” is haunting in the same way that her best-selling novel “Push” was. It’s a horrendous story of incest and abuse.
But unlike “Push,” which, despite its grim tale of pathologies, offered slivers of hope, “The Kid” provides little if any relief for its characters or its readers. It’s packed with the cyclical pain of generations of sexual abuse suffered by characters who in turn inflict pain on others. The images are so graphic that by the end of the first chapter a sensitive reader may want to put the book down and turn away.
“The Kid” is the story of Abdul Jones, the son of Claireece Precious Jones, the heroine of “Push,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film. In that previous novel, Precious was impregnated by her father at the age of 12 and gave birth to a “Down sinder” daughter. When Precious was impregnated a second time by her father, she was kicked out of middle school and sent to an alternative educational program, where a teacher inspired her to believe in herself and write, despite her illiteracy. The story ended with Precious, now HIV-positive, promising to protect and love her second-born, the boy she named Abdul.
“The Kid” opens on the morning of Precious’s funeral. When we meet 9-year-old Abdul, he is refusing to wake up from a dream about his mother. He is a child who senses a foreboding reality:
“In the dream it’s Mommy’s birthday party and she’s holding me in her arms kissing me and dancing with me. Our house is smelling like lasagna, wine, and people, mostly girls sweating and perfume. One girl is smoking weed. Everyone is laughing. Mommy puts me down and goes to open her presents. She’s sitting in the blue armchair under the light. All the people have presents in their hands and are holding them out to her. A lady, who looks nice but when she smiles all her teeth is black, is holding out a pretty present tied with a gold ribbon. No! No! NOOOO! I want to say, but no words come out my mouth, and Mommy takes the box. And I want to stay asleep, even though I know it’s a bomb and I’m not dreaming anymore, and if I was dreaming, the bomb would be exploding now. And now that it’s too late, my voice would be loud. . . . I squeeze my eyes shut, ’cause when I open them, when I stick my head out from under the covers, my mother will be dead and today will be her funeral.”
From this day forward, Abdul’s life spirals out of any semblance of normality and barrels into a horror story of foster homes where he is abused by a maniacal teenager, and then taken to an orphanage where he is abused by doughy priests who make young boys believe that their behavior is dictated by God’s love.
Sapphire, a fearless writer with complete command of her story, spares the reader nothing — no comfort, no room to turn away. The only possible respite can be found in the poetry of her prose. On some pages the writing is absolutely beautiful, as when Abdul asks, “Why does looking at the blue of the sky seem like it’s murdering your heart?”
But at other times the story, which covers about 10 years of Abdul’s life, from age 9 to 19, becomes confusing, weaving between his reality and his dreams, which appear to be his only mechanism to cope with what has been done to him and what he has done. “Normal kids don’t have to pay!” he says, complaining about the advantages another boy enjoys. “Where would he be now if he’d come through foster care and then had to deal with this [expletive] with his pink-implanted scalp, Pilates class, and tanning salons — slurping on his [expletive] near every night.”
Although the novel delves into some of the root causes of abuse, there are no redeeming characters, no saviors, no person who is good enough to save Abdul — not even Abdul himself. One wonders why Sapphire is so unflinching in her descriptions of abuse, describing in graphic detail rape, molestation, the exploitation of children and the complex reactions of victims who find a sick pleasure in the hands of their abusers. Perhaps she intends to shock us awake to the tragedies that take place in cities and suburbs across the United States, such as the D.C. girl recently found dead in a dumpster near a local high school. D.C. police said there was evidence that her father “had a sexual relationship with her.” Sapphire peels back such euphemisms and exposes the facts of those so-called relationships. What “The Kid” reveals about victims and perpetrators is not for the faint of heart.
Brown is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
Penguin Press. 374 pp. $25.95