Contemporary Fiction / Highly Recommended

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Last week we were talking about the Man Booker nominees, and the general consensus was that the list is usually on the dull and uninspiring side.  If that’s the case, then Pigeon English must be an exception.  I absolutely loved this book.

Pigeon English tells the story of an eleven year old boy living in a very rough neighborhood in England.  Harri and his family are from Ghana; his mother emigrated with Harri and his older sister Lydia, while Harri’s father, grandmother, and baby sister remain in Ghana.  Already at a pretty tough age, Harri must deal with living in a totally new environment, negotiating a culture where gangs and violence are everyday occurrences.  He sees himself as the “man of the house” while his father is away; the irony is that the reader can see how much Harri’s mother and sister need to take care of him.

At the beginning of the book, a boy that Harri knew is found murdered.  Harri becomes obsessed by finding the boy’s killer.  His friend Dean, an avid watcher of the television show CSI, provides him with strategies like collecting fingerprints with tape and interviewing witnesses.  Harri seems to know this is a dangerous pursuit, but it’s almost like his life is so infused with violence, this one thing doesn’t seem any more dangerous than going to school each day.

 Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see him very much because he was older and didn’t go to my school.  He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted him to fall off… I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy.  I could bring him back alive that way.

Often when authors write from the perspective of a child narrator, it doesn’t come off as being authentic.  This book does.  Now, I can’t tell you what a young boy from Ghana living in England would actually sound like.  But I can say that I never forgot, as I was reading the book, that Harri was a child.  He’s written with exuberance and innocence, while having to deal with things that are definitely not innocent.   What is so brilliant about this book is the way the narrator speaks with his own voice, but as a reader you can see both the child’s perspective and the adult’s at the same time.  And it’s that contrast that really makes the book powerful.

Harri is a boy through and through – he loves to jump in puddles, run in the wind, and scream in tunnels to hear the sound it makes.  He imagines what kind of superhero he’d be.  He talks to pigeons and really cares about how they feel.  He notices the things we adults are too busy or practical to notice.  He jumps from topic to topic, easily distracted and doesn’t dwell too long on anything.

 I don’t have a favourite raindrop, they’re all as good as each other.  They’re all the best.  That’s what I think anyway.  I always look up at the sky when it’s raining.  It feels brutal.  It’s a bit hutious because the rain’s so big and fast and you think it will go in your eye.  But you have to keep your eyes open or you won’t get the feeling.  I try to follow one raindrop all the way down from the cloud to the ground.  Asweh, it’s impossible.  All you can see is the rain.  You can’t follow just one raindrop, it’s too busy and all the other raindrops get in the way.

The best bit is running in the rain.  If you point your face up to the sky at the same time as running, it nearly feels like you’re flying.  You can close your eyes or you can keep them open, it’s up to you.  I like both.  You can open your mouth if you want.  The rain just tastes like water from the tap except it’s quite warm.  Sometimes it tastes like metal.

He has good friends but is surrounded by ugliness.  He comes to accept the threats of the local gang, and the things he must do to please them.  He knows the “safe” parts of the neighborhood and the unsafe parts.  His mother tries to keep him away from the boys that are trouble, but she can do very little to protect him.

Harri longs for Ghana and the rest of his family.  He remembers his childhood in Ghana in a way that’s so idealized, it may not be quite true.  He remembers times that he and his friends were called upon to help others, where in England he is expected to fight and steal and commit dangerous pranks like throwing stones at the school bus.  He tries to stay “good” but also knows that he needs to fit in.  And as a boy, he often lacks an adult sense of the consequences of his actions.  He only knows he has to prove himself.

I loved the way this book was written; it could be crude and ugly and at the same time absolutely beautiful.  I’m willing to bet there aren’t a lot of books on the Man Booker list that mention farting as much as this one does.  But Kelman also describes Harri’s love for his family and his excitement about the world around him.  Harri is funny and sentimental but his world is brutal.  Kelman writes this book based on his own experience growing up in a “housing estate” in England.  His description of this life is heart-breaking at times, even though Harri doesn’t always understand that.  Like when he talks about the kids daring each other to lick a crack spoon in the playground, or when an illegal immigrant in their neighborhood is deported, or when their playground burns down:

 All the metal was gone black and the rope from the net was burned off and dying.  The fire was very hot.  When I got close it made me go proper itchy.  It felt lovely and sleepy.  It was the biggest fire I’ve ever seen.

The title of the story, a play on the term “pidgin English”, comes from Harri’s love of pigeons, and his friendship (mostly in his own imagination) with a particular pigeon. I loved Harri’s conversations with the pigeons, like this one:

 There was a pigeon with only one leg.  He was nearly as lovely as mine.  He could still walk quite good.  He was just hopping along the edge of the green looking for worms.

Me: ‘Did you lose your leg in a pigeon war or did a cat get it?  Were you born like that?  Don’t worry, you’re safe, I’ll tell you if I see any bad kids.  I won’t let them bash you.’

Pigeon: ‘ ’

This is an example of what I mean when I say this book really feels like it’s written from the voice of a child (but with the knowledge of an adult).  Some of the story is even told from the pigeon’s perspective.  It’s strange and

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