Pigeon English (by Stephen Kelman)

12 08 2011

With the current events in London and some other major English cities a little bit too close for comfort, Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English seems only the appropriate reading material for the cat. With a theme reminiscent of Anthony McGowan’s The Knife that Killed Me and a narrative voice as innocent and honest as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Kelman’s debut is sure to be a critic’s favorite. The fact it has just been longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize should then come as no surprise. The cat’s got to be honest here and say that Pigeon English only partly lives up to the hype.

There’s no doubt that Pigeon English stands out through its narrative voice. The reader sees things much in the same way as Harrison Opoku’s first-person narration lets us see things. This is a fresh, innocent, childlike (but maybe a bit too much so…?) perspective. Harri is a 11-year-old Ghanaian boy, who along with his sister and mother emigrated from Ghana leaving behind a father and a younger sister.  They live in the urban jungle that is the London Dell Farm estate, ruled by gangs, bounded by violence, devoid of opportunities and hope. A grim, yet horribly real, future awaits any young person who has to grow up in similar circumstances. Optimism and hope lie in the seemingly small things of life: a pair of Adidas sneakers (with real or fake stripes), a new Samsung cell phone…

When a boy gets knifed near Chicken Joe’s, a local fast food place, Harri and his friend Dean decide to do their own CSI-like investigation. The investigation and the mystery, though, is never at the heart of the novel. Instead, it’s Harri’s wondrous outlook on his new life in England, the relationship he has with his sister, the interaction with locals, like the drunk Terry Takeaway, the crew members etc.  that stand out. This is the part of the book that definitely worked for the cat. The narration in Harri’s pidgin English mixed with current (London) street slang (lots of hutious and innits) is successful once you get over the initial culture shock.

However, this narrative flow is often interrupted by the comments of a pigeon who comes to Harri’s balcony. The pigeon interventions felt forced and didn’t really bring anything to the overall sense of pending doom. Because let’s face it: the London that Harri lives in is a royal mess – the proof is all in the current events, innit? It’s an explosive cocktail of hopelessness, violence and frustration, and the fact that you have a pigeon commenting on all that really doesn’t make it any better.

Pigeon English works a charm as social commentary (the book was also inspired by the true events of Damilola Taylor’s murder on a south London estate, by the way). It has a unique voice in Harri and its language use is interesting and different enough to make this a successful novel. Considering this is a debut novel, the cat is willing to forgive Kelman the beginner’s mistakes…

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