London, Vintage, 1998, 140+p
Push is a novel that is both disturbing and inspiring. It deals with delicate and challenging issues, but also portrays love and friendship as central and inescapable forces for good.
The story is written from the point of view of Precious, a sixteen year old African American who is pregnant for the second time by her father. She has been failed by her family, the education system, and social services; but finds friendship with her classmates on an adult learning course.
Sapphire, a.k.a. Romona Lofton, draws on her own experience in this semi-autobiographical novel. The events are harrowing - not only does Precious' father molest her, but her mother blames her for the rape. Precious' classmates are also victims of violence and sexual abuse, but are shown love by their teacher, Blue Rain.
It is a brilliantly written first person narrative. The text is littered with spelling mistakes, as Precious writes phonetically; but Sapphire demonstrates her increased confidence and progress through improves spelling and sentence structure. Through Precious' eyes, we learn how she sees the world, and how she feels the world sees her. She carries the weight of terrible trauma on her heavy shoulders, and asks, "Why me?" She hates who she is - she hates her skin colour, her weight, everything. She dreams of being a skinny white virgin, believing this is the only way she could ever find love.
At first, the classmates are reluctant to get to know one another, having previously experienced nothing but betrayal and pain. But Miss Rain is an inspiring teacher, demonstrating that the girls can achieve anything they want. She provides them with a safe space in which to share and learn, without the threat of mockery, embarrassment, or abuse. This environment allows the girls to blossom - at one point, Precious asks, "Why no one never taught me these things before" [sic]. Miss Rain is the one who tells Precious to "push", to try, to be the best she can be.
I saw the film adaptation of this novel last year, but I honestly prefer the book. It is fascinating to be right inside Precious' head, to see the things that couldn't be portrayed on film. It explains her desires and ambitions within the context of her world view. It's hard to imagine experiencing what Precious has experienced, but Sapphire does a brilliant job of bringing this character to life. After reading this tragic novel, I feel I have a far greater perspective on the world, and I see how lucky I am. All of us have the potential to learn and do good things; all of us deserved to be loved. And I think that hope is what will stay with me.