Rating: A-/ There is occasionally something cathartic about reading books that are real downers, if they are well done. A truly bleak book does something that a funny or light book can’t, which is to put the shittiness of the reader’s life into perspective. If nothing else, Push by Sapphire, an excellent book that was also made into an excellent movie called Precious, will make you want to hug your mom and buy her flowers. Whatever issues you might have had with her at the moment, by the end of this book you’ll probably be buying her free passes to the spa so she can treat herself.
Precious Jones is a heavyset sixteen-year-old African-American teenager who is pregnant by her father for the second time in several years. Her first baby came when she was twelve and was born with Down’s Syndrome, and lives with Precious’ grandmother. The most destructive influence in Precious’ life is shockingly not her sexually abusive father, who only comes into her life occasionally to drop by and have his way, but her monster of a mother.
Picture the worst, most uncaring, sadistically cruel mother you can imagine and the picture in your head probably won’t match up with the abomination which is Mary Jones. Precious is uneducated and almost entirely illiterate, but still manages to pass her classes, due in no small part to the apathy of her teachers in her Harlem school. She has been held back a few grades though, and has no faith in herself.
Whatever hope she may have once had seems to have been snuffed out by the abuse perpetrated on her by her parents, but Precious knows enough to realize she wants to make a change in her life. When Precious enrolls in a extracurricular course for illiterate teens, taught by the compassionate Miss Rain, she has no idea how much her life is going to change. Having been suspended from school, the class becomes the only good thing in Precious’ life, and she begins to feel for the first time that her thoughts and feelings have value.
When Lee Daniel’s 2009 film adaptation of this novel came out, there was some controversy about racism, even though almost everyone behind the making of the film was black. It seems like artists can make all the films and write all the books about uneducated, poor white trash they want, but if they write a similar story focusing on African-American characters, everyone goes crazy. I don’t find this book or it’s movie adaptation offensive or racist, but I will warn you that it’s very, very sad.
Push is written in a very unique way due to the author, Sapphire (is that a name?)’s decision to tell the story in Precious’ own words. Due to her lack of education, Precious’ story is written in a very coarse, unsophisticated dialect, which seems like it should be frustrating to read but isn’t. As Precious’ vocabulary skills gradually develop, the number of misspellings and grammatical errors decrease.
Sapphire nails this character’s voice, and she is not afraid to make her very flawed (I think some of Precious’ edge was lost in the film) while still making the reader feel enormously for her. This book is emphatically not for sensitive readers due to the extremely frank depiction of child abuse and incest, and the overall vibe of the book is more sad and bleak than uplifting, despite Precious’ triumphs.
I think Sapphire did an amazing job of bringing her character to life; a character who, despite her extreme situation, feels incredibly real. Writing a book in dialect or pigeon English is always a difficult business, and runs the risk of feeling dull and losing it’s readers’ attention. Some writing instructors advise you not to do it at all, unless you know what you’re doing. Sapphire knows what she’s doing.
You may come out of this harrowing book winded from vicariously living the horrors of Precious’ day-to-day life, but you’ll also get to experience the pleasure of having read a great book. Precious’ story ends kind of abruptly, leaving the reader with lots of questions about what will happen to her next. Sapphire wrote a sort-of sequel to this book about Precious’ son, Abdul, the product of incest.
Unfortunately I don’t have a copy on hand, but until I get the the library next I highly encourage you to pick up this book, which is terribly sad but also weirdly captivating. Precious goes in the subgenre of books that make you look at another side of the human condition, one that is maybe painful and frustrating to witness.
Precious’ wishes for a different kind of life, and willingness to work in order to escape the life she is living, are what save her from an abusive home. Reading this book will make you think about society’s castaways, and whether or not it is worth the money of tax payers to save them from their situation or themselves.
One thing is for sure; it is Precious’ will to change her lot in life that helps to improve things for her, and that is what separates her from her cruel parasite of a mother. Precious ends up being an unlikely hero despite her coarseness and multitude of shortcomings, and her dedication to taking care of her kids while still pursuing her GED is admirable. Precious couldn’t have gotten as far as she did without Miss Rain, but she also couldn’t have done it without her own hard work and focus.
This is a frank, gritty, ‘real-life’ book, with no easy answers and no fairy-tale ending. But despite the grim reveal at the end, there is some hope on display here, and something positive to take away at the conclusion. The unexpected lyricism and depth behind Precious’ blunt, foul-mouthed narration is maybe one of the books biggest surprises, but it also is surprisingly believable. Sometimes Precious, for all her crassness and lack of education, will say something that is so startlingly wise and on point I wish I had come up with it myself.
I’ve never read a novel quite like this one, and although it’s dark subject matter might repel some people, it’s an important and powerful book that needs to be read. Some critics felt the level of cruelty and abuse in this book was extreme to the point of being implausible, but I respectively disagree. Lives like these undoubtedly exist, and as someone with severe depression and anxiety issues, this book helped me put things in perspective. There really is something wonderful, for me at least, about reading a really great, dark book. And the honesty of the protagonist’s voice, not the taboo subject matter, is what makes it really soar for me.