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This novel is loosely based on Damilola Taylor, the young lad murdered on a South London council estate in 2000. In this case, new immigrant Harri lives with his mum and older sister on a London council estate. His dad, grandparents and younger sister are back home in Ghana. A young lad that Harri knows has been stabbed to death on their estate and the police have not been able to come up with anything. No one is surprised, but Harri and another friend decide to investigate secretly, suspecting a local gang.
Whilst the book is written from Harri's perspective it is very much an adult book. This is no Famous Five jolly japes solving mysteries, here a serious (and worryingly too familiar) crime has been committed and the naive Harri and his pal want to find out what happened. Harri is a charming narrator, he is young and sometimes gets words and phrases wrong. He is slightly intimidated by his older sister's brash friends, and just want to run really fast, keep an eye out for his adopted pigeon and have a girlfriend. His new non-brand trainers with the painted on Adidas stripe in marker-pen help with that. Up to this point it has not really occurred to Harri what sort of threats he might have to run from...
Using the voice of a child is a bit of a trend in books, and is not always easy to pull off. I think Kelman has observed very well the sort of things that could confuse an eleven year old boy, especially one from outside the UK. To us, the adult reader, we can read between the lines but Harri doesn't have these skills. We also hear a little bit from the neighbourhood pigeon's perspective which is unique and interesting but I'm not entirely sure is necessary.
Overall an enjoyable and easy read, as far as the writing style is concerned, but the subject matter is more of a challenge.
11-year-old Harri lives on a rough estate in an un-named part of London with his older sister Lydia and his mother, who works long hours as a midwife. They have arrived recently from Ghana, where Harri's dad and baby sister Agnes remain. The story opens with Harri witnessing the aftermath of the murder of a young schoolfriend.
The story is told through the eyes of Harri, and he has a very unique style of speaking to the reader! There are many successful books with child narrators, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, or The Room, and Harri is yet another young narrator with a special voice all of his own. His language is peppered with London street slang and (fairly mild) obscenities, and I found myself really enjoying the banter between Harri and his friends, and Harri and his older sister. The bickering and taunts really rang true for me and weren't too far from the banter I remember back in my own schooldays in London.
Harri is a really innocent boy, quite naïve and gullible in a lot of ways, and at times some of the things he says seem more like that of a 7 or 8 year old than an 11 year old. I'm not sure if this was the author's intention or not. But what is really striking about Harri's banter with his friends is how it is peppered with references to violence - these references are dropped in casually amongst all the other chat about trainers and sweets, and can be quite shocking when you realise how normal talk of knives and guns is to these young boys.
Lacking a plot ...
Although I enjoyed the writing style of this book, the problem for me was with the overall storyline. The problem for me is that it isn't strong enough, as it centres around Harri and a few of his friends trying to work out who the murderer of their schoolfriend could be. This involves often farcical attempts to get fingerprints and spit samples of people they believe could be suspects. In the meantime, Harri manages - sometimes intentionally - to antagonise the boys in the local gang.
One of the problems for me is that the tension that builds up in the story was undermined by the childishness of Harri and his friend's attempts to uncover the murderers. I found these sections a bit tiresome and I actually would have preferred more about Harri's younger childhood in Ghana, or his relationship with his mother.
I enjoyed this book and found it easy and quick to read. I liked the narrative voice of the main character, and there are quite a few peripheral characters in this book that crop up, adding colour and life to the story. The author definitely has a talent for characters and the way they speak. It was just a shame for me that the plot was a bit weak, and I finished this book feeling a bit unsatisfied.
The book is currently available on amazon - Kindle price £1.99, paperback £5.59.
" Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman
I have to admit this is not a book I would have picked myself from a bookshop but a friend of mine handed me a pile of her finished books and I thought I would give it a try as we usually like similar books. At the same time she also gave me "The Kashmir Shawl" which I recently reviewed on here too.
This is Stephen Kelman's debut novel and it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Award in 2011. This is not always something that draws me to a book as often these are rather arty and unusual books that don't always appeal to me but I didn't let that put me off.
Stephen Kelman has used the awful shocking story of the murder of Damiloa Taylor and used this as the frame to build his story around. `Pigeon English is told through the words and seen through the eyes of eleven year old Harrison Opuku. This young lad is a recent iimmigrant from Ghana and he now lives in one of the tower blocks on a council estate in London. This is a socially deprived area with all that goes with this sort of place. Harrison has to cope with bullying, street gangs, knife crime and his mother is in debt to an 'uncle' who beats his wife/partner and carries a 'persuader' which is a baseball bat used to persuade non payers to cough up or suffer.
The story opens with a murder. A young boy who was a great baseball player and super fast runner who went to the same school as Harrison is knifed to death outside a shop. As this is told through Harrison's words he is fascinated by the killing, he notices that his trainers are tied to the fence and wonders if the dead boy still needs them. He and his friend also feel that the police are not doing enough to find the killer and begin their own rather childish investigations.
I found this to be a very easy to read book and I loved Harrison's character. He was a real delight, his observations were so natural as were his reactions. His relationship with his slightly older sister was also very believable. He was a mixture of pure childhood innocence and someone who has seen and experienced too much too young.
I really liked the flashbacks to his life in Ghana. He describes how one night he, his father and a friend went around selling paraffin to all the townspeople because there was a power cut. The sense of community comes through in his description of how everyone came out, they hung lanterns from trees and fences and shared their food. Harrison and his friend were given a sip of beer for all their help.
"We pretended we were boozed. Patrick Kuffour did the best falling over, he went backwards over his wall and landed on his back, when I looked over the wall he was wriggling his arms and legs like a beetle upside down. Asweh, it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen." Later he goes on to say.." Asweh, it was the forever best night I ever had. You just wanted it to stay. You wanted to always feel like that."
I thought this was just so beautifully innocent and childlike it made me smile. It just seemed so sad that he left this rather simple life to come to England and face all that he had to in the equivalent of 'Tower Hamlets'. You have to question whether they were actually better off here.
We don't really get to feel a relationship with Harrison's Mum or his sister to the same extent. This is Harrison's story and the others are incidental characters. His mother is a midwife so an educated lady doing the best for her family. She borrowed money to get the three od them to England. They left father and a baby and grandmother in Ghana. They talk to Dad and the baby on the phone. Harrison's fondness for his baby sister comes through all the way through the story. He is so proud when she says his name. He makes bargains with God to help make her better when she is ill and I found that very touching that an eleven year old boy should feel such a strong tie with is baby sister across the ocean. He tells his grandmother to make sure Papa brings a blanket for baby Agnes when they come as the ones on the plane are' scratchy'.
Another thing that comes through loud and clear is the family's belief in God and their strong faith. Harrison often makes deals with God and talks about Heaven and going to church to pray and sing. This is also evident in the fact that Harrison finds it really hard to lie or do anything wrong so that when he is challenged by the gang to do things he really struggles. That doesn't mean he refuses to do them only that he really struggles with the fact that he has done them and when he is caught out by his mother he is really upset.
He and his friend decide they have to help the police with the murder investigation and that sadly leads to the tragic conclusion in the novel. This is not a spoiler as we are told this pretty early on in the book but you do forget as you share Harrison's exploits throughout the story. They use binoculars and try and collect DNA but they just get anybody's that they come in to contact with. At one time they manage to borrow Harrison's sister's phone with a camera to improve their investigation. It is real 'Boy's Own' stuff and wonderfully innocent but sadly they are playing in a dangerous world.
Harrison is the fastest runner in his year despite the fact he has trainers from a charity shop. He draws stripes on them to make them look like Adidas ones. Later he gets some Diadoras which he is thrilled to bits with.
Harrison enjoys some of his lessons and particularly likes one teacher who makes lessons fun. This shows me that had he been anywhere else he may have had a chance to really do well in school. He gets a girlfriend. He manages this as the girl sends him a note ; Do you like me?"Tthen there were two boxes with yes and no beside them. He only had to tick the right box and that was it, job done he had a girlfriend.
The language throughout is colloquial gangster type take mixed with the Ghanian twist on English as Harrrison has learned. It took me a while to work out 'Asweh' as initially I thought it was a name until I said it out loud. Harrison has a wonderful turn of phrase with so many things, he talks of things being 'brutal' or 'bo-styles' which could date it somewhat but hits the spot perfectly as an eleven year old boy trying to be 'cool.'
I found this list of things he had learned since he had come to England really rather lovely, hundreds of different ways to say someone had farted! Typical humour for a boy that age!
At the same time you feel the underlying fear and dread when they visit Aunt Sonia and Uncle Julias, the loan shark with his 'persuader'. Or when the gang with X- fire ( X not cross) and what they make Harrison do with threats of verbal abuse and knifing him. It is a very thin line he is walking between keeping out of their way and trying to do the challenges they set.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of Harrison's relationship with the 'talking' pigeon but I decided the pigeon was a bit like Jiminy Cricket, the pigeon allowed to say things that couldn't say to his Mum or sister. The pigeon sort of acted as a guardian angel or someone looking from outside Harrsison's friends and family. I am still not convinced it was needed but I guess the title of the book was a play on words - and this was the other side of the meaning, a more literal meaning.
I liked the way the story was told through Harrison's voice but wonder whether it is aimed at adults or teen audience. It would be a great book to read with youngster in order to initiate a discussion but there are aspects such as major swearing that might be difficult to justify to parents. There is nothing in the book that a year 9 or year 10 would not have heard before but schools have to be so careful.
WOULD I RECOMMEND?
Yes I enjoyed the book. It really made me smile at some of Harrison's exploits and descriptions. It is strange that a book with such a dark side to it can actually have you smiling throughout. Harrison is just the sort of mixture of innocence, naivety and cheekiness that I found charming in children I taught in the inner city school I worked in. He was a delight and had a real sense of humour with a lovely warm caring side too. This book is very clever in that there is always the underlying threat that you feel, it never goes away and yet still you can chuckle at the activities Harrison and his friends get up to.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
" It seems hard to believe that this is the author's first book....It seems perverse to describe 'Pigeon English', with its spilled bloods and wasted lives, as an optimisticbook but, against all odds, it is." - Alex Clark The Guardian.
"Harri's observations on his unfamiliar London life are full of satirical charm.... Kelman excels at sharp observations and comic timing.... Kelman deals sensitively with the subject matter of teenage violence." Times Literary Supplement
@Pigeon English' thrives on the sharp collision between Harrison's quasi-comic naiveté and magical world view... and the casual, nihilistic ugliness he blithely describes." - Metro
"Kelman grew up on a similar estate himself, and Harrison's experience of it is convincing.... very engaging, @Pigeon English' presents us with a likeable young narrator and sheds more light on the pressures of growing up in modern urban Britain," The Herald
This shares similarities to 'The Boy in Striped Pyjamas' in that an innocent boy is living through a pretty awful experience. We see these times through the eyes of an innocent child and yet both authors mange to create the same underlying darkness that exists. Both are stories that are tragic and yet while reading them we can smile at some of the narrator's descriptions.
I would say if you enjoyed 'Stripoed Pyjamas' ,then give this a try. If you have any interest in inner city youth culture then this is a good insight. This would be a really interesting book for teachers and social workers as it reflects on issues they deal with on a daily basis. Whether or not this will stand the test of time I don't know but it is a very cleverly told story of our time.
Thanks for reading. Hope this has been of interest to you. This review may be put on other sites under my same user name.