Saturday, May 3, 2014

Precious, by Sapphire

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the depth of depravity which we humans can sink to to inflict harm on one another is never-ending.  But I’ll add a caveat to that statement now; it’ll never stop breaking my heart or surprising me.  Where did these melancholy thoughts come from?  From my latest read, Precious, by Sapphire.  This is a re-read for me, but for those that missed it, this book was turned into an award winning moving about five years ago.  I read the book for the first time then, but it’s been so long that a lot of the smaller details were lost to me, so I was able to come to the book with fresh eyes.

About the plot: Precious is about a girl by the same name.  Based in the ‘80s in New York, we meet 16 year-old Precious on the day she’s being expelled from her school because she’s pregnant.  Precious is larger and older than her classmates, and it’s clear that she’s fallen through multiple cracks in multiple systems; she can’t read, though this is her second pregnancy (by her father – and there’s no spoiler on that; she tells you in the first 10 pages or so) children’s aid isn’t stepping in, and her mother is using Precious and her first grandchild to cheat the welfare system.  In the first 20 pages, the reader is subjected to so much heart-break on behalf of Precious that it’s difficult to carry on reading, but somehow, it feels like you owe it to the young woman (and all the women she represents) to keep going.  Expelled from her school, Precious enrolls herself in an alternative school, where she’s finally taught how to read and write, inspiring her to want better for her and her children than she could have expected before her expulsion.  

Now, I’d like to stress (yet again) that I’m not racist.  I fully admit that I can be culturally insensitive, but that comes from a place of un-education, not malice.  I read a story like Precious sitting in a world removed (financially, educationally, culturally, and racially), and try to understand.  I part of me will never fully comprehend the struggle of minorities (and Precious’ story isn’t beyond the realm of the possible), but I can empathize.  As a woman, I can understand Precious’ desire for safety and security, and her drive to educate herself for her own betterment and the betterment of her children.  So, when I read Precious, I might not be able to sympathize with Precious’ story, but I can empathize, and that’s down to a shared bond of humanity, and the skills of the author in brining Precious to life.

This story is all character driven, and Sapphire delivered in the creation of well-rounded and engaging characters.  Precious is dynamic and believable; I rooted for her to succeed in everything she tried, no matter the odds.  When the odds kept stacking up against her, and I started to loose hope for her, she kept plowing through them, which made me respect the character even more.  Precious’ fellow students and the people she meets out and about in her daily life are equally engaging and dynamic – each one adds to the rich tapestry of the story weaved around Precious.  But, the real stand-outs in terms of secondary characters are Precious’ parents.  Sapphire managed to create two fictional characters that have absolutely no redeeming qualities, and that act as a perfect foil for Precious.  Her relationship with her parents moves the story forward in such a way that makes you root for Precious all the harder because she doesn’t (overtly) encourage the reader to dislike them.  It’s odd, now that I think about it – usually, the protagonist has negative feelings about the antagonist(s) that they share with the reader.  In this case, Precious never passes judgment on her parents, but lets their actions and characters speak for themselves, to great effect.  It’s a delicate dance that Sapphire plays with her characters, and it’s eloquently done.

In terms of plot, Precious never lags.  There is always forward movement, driven by Precious, and so the engaging character creates an engaging plot.  In terms of writing style, Sapphire’s past as a poet really comes thought; not feeling the need to stick to proper grammar and spelling, Sapphire writes in Precious’ voice, which is that of an uneducated young person; as such, it might take a couple of passes here and there to understand what it being said.  But, as Precious educates herself, the narrative voice becomes clearer and clearer, making it easier to read.

So, final verdict?  I would say this is a book to read by anyone with a social conscious.  We’re always so concerned about making sure large atrocities in our human history are never repeated (like genocides), but we seem to be ignoring the little atrocities that happen all around us; I think Precious and Precious represent a part of our society that exists and experience heartbreaking conditions everyday.  Be it for systemic reasons, or just a quirk in humanity that allows us to look the other way from the human suffering that happens around us, this book is a good reminder of what we owe each other as human-beings, regardless of race, sex or social standing.

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