Trying to Muster Sympathy for the Son of Precious
Trigger warning: This review contains excerpts from The Kid that depict rape and child abuse.
When I became a mother, I suddenly found that the suffering of any child, not just my own, was excruciating to me. I switched off news stories about lost children and cringed at coming attractions of horror films about eerie haunted kids. No matter how many times the high school students I teach recommended Sapphire's novel Push and no matter how many glowing reviews I saw of its movie adaptation Precious, I knew I couldn’t handle it. So when I was given the chance to review The Kid by Sapphire, the follow-up to Push, I decided to move beyond my comfort zone. The Kid, it turns out, may have been too ambitious a move.
The novel opens with the nine-year-old Jamal Abdul Louis Jones preparing to attend the funeral of his mother, Precious Jones from Push, who has died of AIDS. From there we follow Abdul from a foster home to an orphanage to his great grandmother’s Harlem home (a former brothel), an uptown apartment, a downtown loft and a psychiatric ward. Throughout this decade-long journey Abdul is stripped of his identity and repeatedly victimized, both physically and sexually, by those entrusted with his care. He also perpetrates sexual and physical abuse and learns more about his identity than he seems able to accept.
I wanted to sympathize with Abdul, orphaned and adrift, let down by the system that was supposed to save him. However, no matter how often I reminded myself that his actions are influenced by the relentless sexual abuse he has suffered at the Roman Catholic orphanage where he ends up shortly after his mother’s death, I could not shake my revulsion at scenes like the one where he sneaks into a roomful of younger children and rapes the sleeping younger brother of a classmate or the one where he masturbates to climax in front of his great grandmother as she tells the story of her own tragic youth.
I tried hard to focus on the heartbreaking innocence Abdul shows in the early chapters, his crackling intelligence, and his inspiring passion for dance and success as an artist. Unfortunately, the novel is told entirely from his point of view in an often excruciatingly graphic and disturbingly violent stream of consciousness that eventually obscures Abdul’s more sympathetic qualities. His narration also makes certain aspects of the novel unclear. The reader does not know, for example, whether all of the awful acts he recounts actually happened or whether he dreamed some of them. The ending, too, suffered from ambiguity as a result of Abdul’s clouded narration, but at that point I was less disappointed by the lack of resolution than I was relieved to be done.
After 300 pages inside Abdul’s troubled head I felt both assaulted every time I picked up the book and disappointed by my inability to muster greater sympathy for a character who'd suffered so terribly, but though my comfort zone may be narrow, I think The Kid might be painful even to a much thicker-skinned reader.