Precious opportunity

PUSH by Sapphire, Secker pounds 7.99

"I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver." Sapphire, who works with illiterate teenagers in New York, meets girls like Precious Jones every day: obese, stroppy and about to have her second baby at 16, she is unable to follow lessons designed for pupils two years younger. She disrupts class to cover up her inadequacies, abuses the white teachers, resents all offers of help ("Come to my house! Nosy ass white bitch! I don't think so! We don't be coming to your house in Wesschesser ...") and is stuck in a vortex of frustration and ignorance.

Despite a physical attack by the 5'10", 200lb Precious, Mrs Lichtenstein ventures down to Lennox Avenue to conduct an interview with her angry pupil via the intercom ("I don't believe this retarded hoe"). She dangles the chance of a place at an alternative school; there Precious meets an inspirational teacher very much in the mould of Sapphire herself. Ms Rain (first name Blue) sets about teaching her class of brutalised girls to read, write and rebuild a crushed sense of self. Encouraged by her teacher ("you gotta push"), Precious begins to tell the story of her long climb up to literacy. She decides that her narrative is going to make sense and tell the truth: "Ain't enough lies and shit out there already?"

The book is a patchwork, incorporating Precious's vigorous, pungent speech transliterated, her first halting attempts to write: ("all yr I sit cls I never lrn bt I gt babe agn Babe bi my fvr"), the class's end-of-year essays and a brief third-person passage. Her second child is born: "Abdul Jamal Louis Jones. That is my baby's name. Abdul mean servant of god; Jamal, I forgot; Louis for Farrakhan, of course." Precious's own kneejerk prejudice takes a knock when she discovers that her teacher is a lesbian: "Miz Rain says Farrakhan is jive anti-Semitic, homophobic fool."

Sapphire may have an agenda, but it doesn't distort or compromise Precious's story. This is not a pleasant read: the most vile passage records a forced sex session with her mother, a woman so fat that she has long since stopped bathing. The blows which crunch down on Precious become numbing: her first baby, Little Mongo, has "Down Sinder"; she discovers that her father died of Aids, that she herself is HIV-positive, and that she may have passed on the virus to Abdul. Despite all this the book is ultimately uplifting, with the power and vehemence of rap: ugly only because it points to ugliness, crude in its denunciation of crudity, brutal in its defence of the vulnerable.

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