Piling on the agony

Susie Boyt is simultaneously repulsed and impressed by the tale of a Harlem heroine; Push by Sapphire, Secker, pounds 7.99 How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry MacMillan, Viking, pounds 16
It's unusual for a book to make me cry, or, for that matter, to make me vomit. Push, a novel by an American writer called Sapphire, produced both reactions. It tells the tale of Precious Jones, a 16-year-old black girl who has never been out of Harlem, who has suffered the worst kind of childhood abuses you could imagine. Raped by her father from infancy, she gives birth to his child at 12, on the kitchen floor, following a severe beating from her mother who has also subjected her to sexual and physical assaults. The result is a mongoloid baby whom she refers to throughout the book as Little Mongo. At 16, Precious is pregnant by her father again and, as the baby starts to show inside her, is expelled from school, and sent to an alternative centre for children with difficulties, called Each One Teach One.

Here, in a small class of rape and incest survivors, ex-crack addicts, a girl who has had to watch her mother being murdered and a junior prostitute, Precious begins the long and difficult journey towards recovery. Trying to write helps her find a way of acknowledging what she has suffered. Learning to read her class-mates' work as well as books like The Colour Purple help her to manage her shame. The book's movement towards hope is slow and difficult, never facile, and does not underestimate the obstacles involved.

Reading this book made me distinctly uncomfortable, for many different reasons, and it is obviously meant to. We are not spared any details when Sapphire describes Precious's father having brutal and depraved sex with his daughter. We are given a glimpse of her state of shame and confusion after these regular assaults when we are told that smearing her face with her own faeces after her father has raped her is somehow soothing to the heroine's troubled mind. I wondered, while reading, what exactly the point of committing all this horror to paper was. To let the world know that such things go on? To show how completely vulnerable children are to their parents' desire to damage them? To make a point about hope - that some kind of sanity can be salvaged from even the most vile beginnings? The book certainly forces one to consider these questions, all of which seem valid and worthy and yet somehow the relentless scale of the tragedy and the explicit details of the sexual suffering are too much. Just when things look as though they couldn't get any worse, Precious discovers that her father has infected her with the HIV virus.

The author teaches creative writing and poetry in New York City and has said that Precious's life is the kind of story that is familiar to her through her work with teenagers. At times, Push made me wonder whether it was right to convert such terrible personal tragedy into a literary product. But perhaps that's the point: that no-one wants to have to face up to, or take responsibility for, things that have gone this wrong. The father's delight in his daughter and her mother's abuse are so vile that you are left with the feeling that you have been forced to watch what took place. Hence the vomit.

A tendency towards blandness in Terry McMillan's How Stella Got her Groove Back was a life-saver after Sapphire's book. This is a tale of how a successful, 42-year-old black financial analyst called Stella Payne turns her world around. As the book begins, Stella's life is shown as near-complete. She has a great job, a beautiful apartment with quirky colour scheme and leather flooring. She has a son, Quincy, she adores, a toned and youthful body, and a hobby designing original pieces of furniture. In fact, she hardly has time to notice that the one thing she lacks is a meaningful relationship.

This all changes when a trip to Jamaica sends her reeling. Suddenly, all the things she has previously valued - security, financial success, control - seem to lose their allure as she finds herself falling for a 20-year-old Jamaican man. The book is written in a light, conversational style which lends itself particularly well to the heroine's frequent attempts to get herself back on the straight and narrow.

Although How Stella Got Her Groove Back could benefit from a more complex plot, it is a pleasant, undemanding tale of emotional awakening.

`A little gentler on the G-String, Mr Smith': Pasha and Bayadere from the camera of the early Victorian photographer, Roger Fenton. In the summer of 1858 Fenton staged and recorded over 50 images of the odalisques, musicians, and hookah-smokers in his London studio. Delacroix assidulously took sketchbook and paints onto the streets to capture his Orient. By contrast the cheerful air of amateur dramatics that pervades Fenton's collection is not to be missed. `Pasha and Bayadere' is published by the Getty Museum in the Studies in Art series.