The Kid, Sapphire’s sequel to Push, the novel on which the movie Precious was based, is a grueling book. The difficulty comes largely because its protagonist, Precious’ son Abdul, is a young man who’s hard to relate to. Frankly, Abdul is psychotic. 

The problem isn’t his fault. The book opens with the death of Abdul’s mother when he’s only nine years old and still an innocent. Still, the trauma of Precious’ death and the sugary callousness of the women who take him in are the beginnings of his break with the world. He not only loses his mother and his home, but somewhere along the line he even loses his name—everyone starts calling him “Jamal” or “J.J.” He believes he hears his mother’s voice, he zones out, he talks to himself. His removal to a boy’s orphanage, the oddly named St. Ailanthus, furthers his deterioration; he is by turns sexually and psychologically abused and coddled by the religious brothers who run the place. After a while, Abdul comes to treat his one friend at the orphanage, a smaller boy named Jaime, with the same abuse mingled with perverse tenderness. Still Abdul insists that he’s not a bad boy, and he isn’t. He was with his loving but beset mother—she was desperately poor and deteriorating from AIDS—long enough to have a core of goodness in him. In this, Abdul is a bit more fortunate than Richard Wright’s sociopathic and homicidal Bigger Thomas in Native Son.

Abdul’s escape from the craziness both inside and outside him is dance. He first takes lessons at a studio not far from St. Ailanthus and develops into a brilliant semi-professional dancer. But his vocation doesn’t deliver him from pain. A series of bizarre twists and turns lands him with a group of passionate fellow dancers, but even his connection with them, like his connection with the rest of the world, is ragged and fragile. Sapphire keeps the reader on edge—sometimes, like Abdul, you don’t know whether a situation is “real” or is taking place entirely, or somewhat, in the young man’s mixed-up head. As with Push the author doesn’t gift us with even a semblance of a happy ending, but she does give us hope; the ending of The Kid feels like a cliffhanger, and there’s more to come. We simply don’t know if what’s coming will be better.

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