Sapphire mines the generational nightmare that has its roots in poverty, economy an effective master of those without voice or power in a system that renders them invisible. Her first novel celebrated the triumph of Precious, whose love of words and learning pushes her beyond the boundaries of poverty and abuse, her son, Abdul, as fine a reward as the words she scribbles in her notebooks
But Precious is a child of her environment, suffering from AIDS, her premature death sending nine-year-old Abdul Jones into the bureaucratic labyrinth of New York’s child welfare system. His mother’s name may be Precious, but Abdul’s name changes with circumstances, his identity cancelled by the needs of those who prey on him. The boy’s bright curiosity is of little consequence as the system dumps Abdul into an ugly stew of abuse, foster care and a Catholic boy’s school where every terrible suspicion is proven true.
Assaulted on all sides by the manipulation of others - good and bad - Abdul (or JJ or Arthur Stevens) knows one thing only: “I didn’t have to hide. I didn’t exist for nobody.” Identity comes from an unexpected source. When the boy hears the rhythms of a dance beat, he responds to a calling that will bring both opportunity and betrayal. His journey from the cesspool of dependency is chaotic, painful, confusing and filled with pitfalls. Assimilating the truth of his childhood in a stream-of-consciousness history recited by his great-grandmother, Abdul flees in search of himself but finds only the limited options society offers to the dispossessed.
Reality can be dealt with only in fragments, the future half-fantasy, half-real in a harrowing emotional ordeal that reshapes boy to man, self purchased at great cost. Intending to provide her son with love, Precious fails, her death delivering her son a scorched-earth legacy, a boy screaming his name against the dark. Whether he survives will be a combination of fate, courage and the occasional goodwill of others.
The lost children of Abdul’s generation find one another and patch together something like life, but scars and wounds inform their idea of family, twisted perceptions in a land marred by poverty, confused sexual identity, AIDS and the seething masses who jostle for space in a city that can’t see them. From innocent to predator, Abdul adapts, learning what he must to survive, but each act delivers him closer to spiritual oblivion. The preyed upon learns to prey, to savor the power of the strong over the weak.
There is so much in this novel - grief, pain, anguish, abuse - that you have to applaud someone who has the courage to write this terrible odyssey. No soft corners here, no temporizing; only Abdul, son of a woman who fought against all odds for her small measure of happiness. But the lesson is not lost: Abdul is at the mercy of those who dictate his fate, whether child services, predatory priests, street hustlers, a woman with a faithless heart or the doctor in a mental ward. Sapphire’s stream-of-consciousness locks the reader into the chaos of Abdul’s mind, a mix of stories and reality, a landscape of horrors, the frustration of rage and brutal experience thrusting him into ever more tragic situations.