Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

>> Monday, October 24, 2011

TITLE: Pigeon English
AUTHOR: Stephen Kelman

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Fiction

Pigeon English tells the story of 11-year-old Harrison Opoku who, with his mother and sister, is newly arrived from Ghana on a rough London estate.

When a local boy is knifed to death and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harrison decides to start a murder investigation of his own.
Readers of this blog in the UK will probably have seen the controversy surrounding this year's Man Booker Prize, with some criticising the judging panel for apparently choosing "readability" over quality. Well, as far as I'm concerned, they can go hang. This year's longlist looked fantastic. I've already read 3 and have a few more in my TBR pile. All 3 I read were excellent reads, but so far, Pigeon English has been the best. It was this month's book at my book club, but I already had it out from the library.

The book's narrator is Harrison Opoku, a recent immigrant from Ghana. Harri is 11, and is living with his mum and older sister, Lydia, in a council estate in London. His father and baby sister stayed behind until his mum can make enough money to bring them as well, a shame, since Harri would much rather have baby Agnes with them than that odious Lydia.

As the book starts, one of the older boys from the estate has just been stabbed to death. Harri liked the boy: he was nice and very good at football. The police appeals for witnesses to come forward and offers a reward, but no one comes forward. And that's when Harrison has his bright idea, and with his friend Dean (who has a vast store of knowledge acquired by watching all sorts of police TV shows), they decide to investigate the murder.

Objectively, the stuff going on around Harri is pretty grim. Gangs of young boys terrorise the estate, his sister is clearly in over her head is something quite bad and his mum owes money to his auntie's boyfriend, whose baseball bat called "The Persuader" gives a clue to what he does. Interestingly, though, it's not as harrowing a book to read as this might indicate. I guess it's because seeing it all through Harri's eyes makes all the difference. He's exuberant and good tempered, curious about everthing around him. He does not quite understand the implications of everything he's seeing -I think part of it is that everything in this country is new to him, the good and the bad, so he cannot fully differentiate between what he's just never experienced before, because this is a different country, and what he hasn't experienced before because he didn't live amongst gang members. But even when Harri doesn't quite get it, we, as readers, do.

Harri's narration makes this a surprisingly funny book. This is probably also part of what makes it bearable and readable, those truly hilarious moments. I think my favourite is when Harri and Dean make a list of traits that distinguish a potential suspect for their investigation, and the last item on their list is Religious Hysteria. It doesn't even sound that funny out of context, but as you're reading, you can't help but laugh.

One of my favourite things about Pigeon English is the use of language. Harri has a very distinctive voice. It's not just the use of Ghanaian slang (hutious for scary, asweh as an interjection, kind of "I swear!" - I remember those because I looked them up the first time I saw them), but also the use of, say, "only" and "even" in ways that feel quite novel and make Harri uniquely Harri. I don't know any Ghanaians, so I obviously can't really say how authentic this sounds, but a lot of things about how Harri speaks reminded me of a Nigerian friend of mine, like the use of terms and expressions that sound a bit formal and old-fashioned, but are clearly used quite colloquially by the characters (e.g. "easing oneself" for weeing... Harri loves to go for a wee right after his mum has cleaned the toilet because he loves feeling like God as he eases himself on a cloud, as he puts it :-D)

We had a really interesting discussion at the book club, and one of the most fascinating bits was about how Kelman depicts Harri as a quite recent immigrant. I mentioned something above already about how he seems to accept all the different things, the good and the bad, with some equanimity. He's integrated pretty quickly, both in good and bad ways, but there were quite a few other very telling details, where Kelman shows that while Harri's miming what's going on around him, he doesn't fully "get" things. One example of that that was mentioned was when he draws Adidas stripes on his cheap trainers and then is disappointed when everyone at school laughs at him. This whole issue was something I hadn't noticed as I was reading, but it made perfect sense when it was pointed out. Maybe because as a relatively recent immigrant myself (4 years last September!), I've probably had a few Harri moments myself and never even noticed.

The only bad thing about the book was the talking pigeon. Well, he doesn't really talk, but almost. See, there's this particular pigeon that Harri likes and considers his friend. He leaves food out for him, that sort of thing. And there are a few passages (not many, and not long) narrated from that pigeon's point of view. It did not work at all. I agree with the person in my book club who said it was the only thing in a wonderfully genuine book that smacked of literary pretentiousness. I can (kind of) see what Kelman was trying to do with it, but still, no. Fortunately, it's not a dominating element, and this is a book that can be enjoyed without the pigeon idiocy leaving a bad taste in the mouth, but I reckon that must have been one of the reasons it did not win the Booker. I can just see the judges discussing who should win and debating whether they could go as far as to award the prize to a book with a talking pigeon.



Darlynne,  24 October 2011 at 17:09  

I really enjoyed your take on this book and will have to add it to my TBR list. As for the pigeon, I'll keep an open mind and wonder, perhaps, if it was meant as a kind of magical realism, whether it would work in that context. I am always willing to suspend my disbelief if a writer can convince me to do so. Thanks!

Anonymous,  25 October 2011 at 00:18  

You liked this one more than I did. The pigeon was an issue for me too.

What this book did do was bring the life on those kinds of estates to life, and bought back lots of memories for me of living in one of those tower blocks in England in the mid 1990s.

Marg,  25 October 2011 at 00:19  

The guest was me!

rosario001,  26 October 2011 at 07:10  

Apparently the author grew up in an estate like that. Sounds like he knows what he's talking about, then?

rosario001,  26 October 2011 at 07:12  

I'd be interested to hear what you think, Darlynne. There have been loads of discussions about the books on the shortlist all over the place, and I can't think of one person who liked the pigeon, lol!

Anonymous,  10 December 2016 at 17:54  

I don't know if you get it but the pigeon already knew that the boy was going to die, and in the book the pigeon was the reflexion of God himself.

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