*There is no getting around it; The Kid is a disturbing read. Those familiar with Author Sapphire’s first novel Push published in 1996, filmed as the 2009 Oscar winning Precious, will be familiar with her talent for penning dark characters in still darker scenarios. From the outset, the lights are dim in this book. Nine-year-old Abdul Jones’ only reason for sunglasses is for a funeral.
The death of his childhood is swift and violent. Few adults mourn its passing. Few adults notice the symptomatic motifs of his terminal illness: abusive environments, sexual predators, anger, violence, and systematic failures. Few adults exist to medicate his need for love, nurture and belonging, once his mother’s friend Rita and foster carer Miss Lillie disappear. So the nails are knocked into the coffin, which will carry Abdul’s innocence with sledgehammers of self-harm, prostitution and rape. Even the police fail to rescue the vulnerable child from the hypocritical Brothers at St Ailanthus Boys’ Catholic orphanage. So, forced into adulthood, Abdul buries his head in fantasies about Crazy Horse and other Native Americans. Even death becomes fantastical, “My mother died in a car accident, my father died in the war.”
Death haunts Abdul and ghosts from his past scare him to his core. From his maternal great grandmother, who he calls Slavery Days, he has inherited tragedy. The genetic disorder of pain has been passed on from Mississippi to New York; generation-to-generation. Moments of light lift the heavy mood in the book. The family history of suffering and an uncouth nature is juxtaposed with high art and culture when Slavery Days recalls her time spent in Harlem cotton clubs listening to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. But, not even the soothing sounds of jazz can dampen the harshness of incest that is the family story. “You de seed”, Slavery Days insists.
What have been planted in this desolate graveyard are weeds. But Abdul seeks to run away and grow even in his wayward manner. Bravely he still attempts to navigate life despite the constant and sudden upheaval without explanation. A chance encounter with African dance threatens to save his life. Before long, Abdul’s body, which aches, becomes stretched by Ballet. Plié and relevés become his paramedics. But by age 14, his French dance teacher Roman seeks to derail the ambulance.
There are glimmers of hope for this bright child with knowledge of Frida Kahlo and Picasso, a passion for black history, earth science, and his precious Kaleidoscope. His ordinary dream of a home, college, professional dance career, and family taunts and teases him, though we will for his relationship with his girlfriend My Lai and residency in the downtown artist loft to work out. But, no matter what way we look at it, Abdul’s dreams are an illusion. There is no happy ending; the cold streets of New York pull no punches.
Sapphire, who has a background in social services, was hit by assumptions that the book was autobiographical but she should not be offended; it is testimony to the story’s authenticity. This sad story is too real for the one million and still counting orphaned by HIV-AIDS to who the book is dedicated. The book eulogises the voices of the many affected by this epidemic, by abuse and the failings of child welfare systems.
In this master class on writing, skillfully, Sapphire puts the devil in the detail with quotes from singer Sade to Author Doestoevsky. Four books house chapters marking the deteriorating state of Abdul’s health from nine, to falling, to ascension, to dirty 4 dirty. Soiled by life and with few possessions, Abdul has forgotten his identity. Scars, both physical and psychological, overpower his few precious memories.
Another perfect candidate for a film, it is hard to forget the graphic images of abuse, which unapologetically pop up to suddenly attack both Abdul and the reader amid the most innocuous circumstances. No parents; no parental warnings. As Abdul seeks an understanding he never quite gets, the reader too is left without a perfectly resolved journey. But as we remember the real Abduls of the world, we must pray they have a better life. They must be confined to fiction expired in the real word: ashes to ashes dust to dust.
The kid by Sapphire, published by Penguin, is out now priced £12.99. For more information visit: http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780241145296,00.html
The UK Corner covers urban entertainment from a British perspective and is written by Fiona McKinson ©. She is a freelance journalist and creative writer based in London. Contact her. Visit her blog for more: http://thetalentshow.co.uk/theukcorner/