Push by Sapphire.
Vintage books, Random House, New York, my edition 1997, orig. pub. 1996.
Adult fiction incorporating poetry, 140 pages plus the Life Story Class Book (not paginated).
Lexile: not leveled.
AR Reader: 4.0 (worth 5.0 points)
NOTE: This book is not intended for children, whatever the reading level may be.
16-year-old Precious is pregnant with another one of her father’s babies and has been kicked out of school. Her mother feels there’s no point and what’s the use, since she can’t read anyway? But Precious, fierce, determined, angry, and sad, misses school and is going to try again. Maybe her baby can have a better life than her.
I came across this book in the most roundabout way. I’d heard of it before and the movie Precious which is based on it. But it wasn’t on my TBR, just one of those books you hear about and nod, “yes, I’ll read that some day.” Then I was at the summer clearance at Barnes and Noble, and they had a copy of the 2011 sequel, The Kid in hardcover for a dollar. That’s been sitting on my shelves for a year now, and I finally picked up a copy of Push.
This is a slim and compelling novel. I’m going to give the warnings at the top, as some of these topics will be discussed in my review. Child abuse in all forms, swearing, fat shaming, drug use (seen negatively by the main character), racial slurs, rape, incest, homophobia, illiteracy, prostitution, minor references to religion (Islam and Christianity).
If you’re still reading, then you should probably read this book. The majority of it takes place in the late 1980s, but reading it in 2017, what terrified me the most was that this could happen today. Children slip through the cracks. Major crimes are missed and repeated. Precious herself comes to an understanding of this at an event toward the end of the novel, which brings her some healing as she feels less alone in her dire circumstances. I’ve used the historical fiction and contemporary tags since it feels modern (other than cell phones now being prevalent).
The remainder of this review will contain mild spoilers.
What was very interesting about the conceit of this book is that it relies on the reader’s knowledge to make it work. When Precious says “My daughter got Down Sinder” (page 3), we know that she really means Down Syndrome. The same goes for when she describes other things about her life. We can understand more of what is happening when she transfers to the new school program or has therapy sessions with her social worker.
But where this really comes into play is when Precious gets further into her program. The curriculum is never explicitly spelled out. Sapphire does us the credit of assuming that her audience can understand references to Langston Hughes, Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright or The Color Purple. If these various literary references are missed, the novel will still be a compelling story, just missing one layer of depth.
There are parts I didn’t like. Precious’s daughter (the product of an incestuous rape) having Down Syndrome could give some readers false ideas about Down Syndrome. Precious having named her Mongo after the outdated term Mongoloid doesn’t help either.
Precious begins the book spouting homophobic slurs and believing that homosexuals are responsible for a variety of societal ills. This is one of the areas where she shows significant improvement during the book, particularly after being called out on it. She’s asked to examine her own life and the wrongs done to her compared to the good from the few lesbians she knows.
The entire book contains hatred or negative thoughts about white people, both in general and specific characters throughout the book. Her positive interactions with white authority figures have been few and far between, and those have all (in her eyes) failed her. Some truly did fail her, while a few seemed to have done their best to help, which simply wasn’t enough to produce any change.
Push is written in a combination of styles. It uses first person narrative, journal entries (including the occasional response from her teacher), and poetry. Sapphire writes in Precious’ voice, which means that words are missing or spelled wrong and grammar varies. This (along with the frequent swearing, sexual references, and insults) can be difficult to get into. It does seem to improves as the book goes on, although that could also just be me acclimating.
The poetry was quite good. The misspellings irritated me at points, but many of the poems felt like they could stand alone outside of the novel’s context. Since there were other formats included, the narrative drive was able to advance and the poetry was light enough that a novel reader can enjoy the book.
There are many trigger warnings, and a few flaws in this book. I’d recommend trying to read it fairly quickly (it’s short and you’ll want to know what happens next anyway) if possible so as to stay in Precious’ mindset. This is definitely a novel to think about.
For a more in-depth review, see Literary Ramblings.