Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

Review copy courtesy Anansi International

Before we actually get to Pigeon English, let’s contemplate for a moment the history of novels that feature pre-adolescent narrators or points of view. It has been a popular literary device for a long, long time — many of us remember our first introduction to Dickens. And in Canada, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen The Wind (1947) was published the year before I was born and remains a significant seller to this day. Roddy Doyle turned Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha into a Booker winner in 1993. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time won prizes in 2003 and 2004 and also continues to sell. Last year, Emma Donoghue’s Room attracted widespread attention, prize listings and continuing best-seller status.

The attraction for authors is easy to understand. The young central character is not constrained by established social ideas of preference, bias, convention or prejudice — but is starting to discover all of them. That not only permits character development and a distinctive voice, it also opens the door for easily developed commentary on “adult” issues in whatever era the book is set.

That also helps explain why publishers like the concept when they think it is well-executed (Pigeon English, a first novel, apparently provoked a bidding war involving 12 UK publishers). The book not only sells, it backlist sells — and what publisher does not thirst for that.

And the reader attraction is easy to understand as well. I can assure you from searches on this blog for my review of Room that book clubs everywhere are considering it. (Again my Anansi International edition of Pigeon English illustrates this target market — it includes both discussion questions and a short author interview as appendices.) The novels tend to be short (this one is 261 pages) and not too hard to read. Also, child narrator books seem to provoke the kind of diverse reaction that is perfect for book clubs — if you check various forums, there are about equal numbers of readers who a) consider Room one of the best books they ever read or b) abandoned it in disgust.

I am sure there are other examples about, but Kelman’s book is liable to be the leading 2011 entry in the field. Born and raised in Luton, he’s set his novel in an inner-city London housing estate so he knows this world, but there is a crucial difference from his own experience. His 11-year-old narrator/hero, Harrison Opuku, is newly arrived from Ghana (probably illegally) which adds the tensions of race, immigration and experiencing a new culture to the normal pre-adolescent experiences — not to mention the chance to drop in some cross-cultural street language.

The buildings are all mighty around here. My tower is as high as the lighthouse at Jamestown. There are three towers all in a row: Luxembourg House, Stockholm House and Copenhagen House. I live in Copenhagen House. My flat is on floor 9 out of 14. It’s not even hutious, I can look from the window now and my belly doesn’t even turn over. I love going in the lift, it’s brutal, especially when you’re the only one in there. Then you could be a spirit or a spy. You even forget the pissy smell because you’re going so fast.

Hutious? A short glossary says it is Ghanaian-English for “scary, frightening”. You can try to figure out “asweh”, “bogah” or “bo-styles” when they show up in the book for yourself, although they too are in the glossary.

The continuing plot thread of Pigeon English is the murder of another youngster, which opens the book:

You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy.

Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’

Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’

Jordan: ‘One quid then.’

You wanted to touch it but you couldn’t get close enough. There was a line in the way:

POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS

If you cross the line you’ll turn to dust.

Harri and his friends in Year 7 will fancy themselves as detectives in tracking down the murderer. Their key suspect(s) are members of the Year 11 Dell Farm Crew: “The steps outside the cafeteria belong to the Dell Farm Crew. Nobody else is allowed to sit there.”

The novel is not just a child detective story, of course. Home for Harri in the projects also includes his mother and older sister, Lydia. Father and younger sister Agnes are still back in Ghana, trying to put together the money to get to England — money that apparently will go to Auntie Sonia’s boyfriend, Julius, who is always seen carrying a tape-wrapped bat he calls the Persuader and sometimes has a packet of passports.

The structure also allows for riffs on what trainers are best (Harri is the fastest kid in Year 7), discovery of sex (he’s not yet sure what “suck off” means exactly) and the influence, or non-influence, teachers have on their students. One of the advantages of pre-adolescent characters is that they are always experiencing new things and their innocence allows the author to skim a lot, leaving it to the reader to fill in the depth.

I don’t usually quote blurbs at length, but for those who like the genre here is Emma Donoghue’s on this one: “This boy’s love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through. Pigeon English is a triumph.”

I wouldn’t go that far, for sure, but neither did I at any point consider abandoning the book — like Donoghue’s Room, Pigeon English is a solid 2 1/2 stars out of five if I were to put it on a rating scale. Every major city in the world has immigrant neighborhood’s featuring families like Harri’s and the stabbing that opens the book is, unfortunately, a feature of them all. As is the inner-family tension which, to Kelman’s credit, is well-developed in this book.

Still, as I made my way through the book, I’ll admit I was more curious about the author’s device than I was engaged in his story. I’ll contrast it with Room — I think Donoghue had the potential for a much better book but for me she lost her way when Jack and Ma escaped the Room. Kelman’s effort, on the other hand, is much less ambitious, but he succeeds in maintaining a constant pace throughout the book and there is no doubt that Harri became an interesting, and rather likable, character. Donoghue gets her 2 1/2 for ambition, Kelman for execution.

If you liked previous child narrator books, you’ll probably like this one. If they fell flat for you, I’d predict Pigeon English will land that way as well.

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29 Responses to “Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I usually dislike child narrators. I avoided Room, and the quotes here tell me I’d dislike this novel a great deal.

    I hope you get some positive comments.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It was just released today, so it may be a while before avid fans check in and I am sure there will be some. I don’t think it is your kind of book.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’m interested in what you say about child narrators in general and what they can offer the reader; it’s a more sophisticated way of looking at it than I had first thought. I’m going to add this post as a link to a post I did about a book we’re currently discussing with great fervour at ANZ LitLovers…it’s called Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer. I’ve been quite evasive in my review, to avoid spoilers, see http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/rocks-in-the-belly-by-jon-bauer/ but what makes your thoughts about child narrators relevant is Rocks in the Belly switches from child narrator having a horrible childhood but being equally horrible himself, to the same narrator as an adult, with some equally childish and horrible ways of behaving.
    Thanks for making me think afresh, Lisa

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Two and a half stars. I hope the book’s fans when it gets them provide some counterviews for interest’s sake, but I doubt I’ll be among them.

    I don’t buy an 11 year old thinking they’ll turn to dust crossing a police line at all. That’s the trouble with books featuring characters of these sorts of ages. It’s easy to make them too immature or mature.

    Also, speaking as someone who grew up in these sorts of estates, that boy’s imagination is better than mine ever was if he can manage to ignore the pissy smell. I certainly never could. Then again, I never found a lift that moved quickly either so perhaps things have improved…

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Damn. I was hoping you’d be interested enough to try this one, since I knew you grew up in these kinds of circumstances — you were going to be my reality check on the book. :-) From my point of view, Sam Selvon’s Moses offers a much better perspective on the issues at stake.

    And I certainly agree that one of the issues with child narrators is that you have to accept that the author is going to occasionally give them adult abilitiers to suit the author’s need at the moment. That can become very grating if other aspects of the book start to annoy you.

    Lisa: Your example expands the idea a bit (and also shows up elsewhere) with the child turning into an adult product. It is an example of another problem I have with the conceit: I can’t help but think that that is laziness on the author’s part, using childhood innocence or ignorance to conveniently set the conditions of the adult character, rather than developing them on a more rigorous basis.

  6. RickP Says:

    I never thought of child’s perspective in novels to be almost a sub genre. While that’s stretching it a bit, there are obviously many books that use the device.

    It’s a bit of a tricky thing to do. It can provide great benefits but can really distract. In Room, I found the child perspective to be very distracting. As a parent of three, it somehow didn’t ring true with me.

    On the other hand, one of my favourite uses of the technique is To Kill A Mockingbird where the view of events through a child’s eyes rang very true.

    • Jenny Says:

      Oh God, really? I taught Mockingbird to 7th graders for a few years, and I’ve gotta tell you… the more times I read it, the more I disliked it. In fact, I’ve come to really hate that book. It’s practically blasphemy, I know. Strange but true—some books you like and appreciate more as you teach them. Others you despise and disdain more.

      I liked Room, but I think I’ve come to have real problems with children as narrators, but more often than not, with first person narrators.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Thanks for adding To Kill A Mockingbird into the mix — I agree that it illustrates an excellent example of the technique.

    In some ways, I think there are comparisons with abstract or minimalist art, which Mrs. KfC and I collect. Some more honest visitors to the house have asked “you paid for that when my child could have done it?”
    When it is used successfully, it produces exceptional results — for me, most of the time, it just doesn’t work.

  8. Kerry Says:

    I prefer the execution to the ambition, I think, but two and a half stars does not create much urgency when so many other books are vying for attention. Of course, this will probably show up in the Tournament of Books next year and I will want to have read it anyway…..

    Like some other commenters, I am leery of books with child narrators. As someone said about Room, staying too true to the voice/thoughts of a five-year old would become extraordinarily painful very quickly. It is very difficult to pull off the balancing act between a plausibly authentic and a sufficiently interesting narrative.

    Of course, one might say, so generalized, that is a tightrope every novelist must walk.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: If I had to pick, I’d take execution as well. Although I should note that those who are enthusiastic about Room did find much more in the second half than I did.

  10. Lee Monks Says:

    Max – ‘I don’t buy an 11 year old thinking they’ll turn to dust crossing a police line at all.’

    In a nutshell. Painful.

  11. anokatony Says:

    I thought the child narrator of Room was just fine, convincing as a 5 year old. Is Stephen Kelman related to James Kelman?
    One child narrated novel I really enjoyed was “When We Were Romans” by Matthew Kneale. And don’t forget Tom Sawyer.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: How could I forget Tom Sawyer? My issues with Room weren’t the narrator (I thought the first half, where his voice is strongest, was quite good) but that the author lost her way midway through the book.

    I had the same question as you about Kelman and haven’t looked closely but I think not — James was born in Glasgow, Stephen is a Luton boy.

  13. John Self Says:

    Kevin, I think we are of one mind on this book (though I rated it a notional three stars, ie enjoyed it but wouldn’t strongly recommend it), though you have been kinder in tone than I (probably not for the first time!). Interestingly, although the UK edition also comes with reading group ‘questions for discussion’, there is no author interview and, more notable, no glossary.

    Those ‘questions for discussion’ really bother me generally. Why must a book be supplanted with directions on how to think about it? Shouldn’t any work of literature or art stand on its own two feet? OK, so you don’t have to read the questions, and I’ve never been part of a reading group, but are the social issues and character dilemmas really what interest most people about a book?

    • Colette Jones Says:

      The final UK edition does have an author interview along with the questions for discussion. No glossary.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I did see your review and agree that we have similar responses. I am puzzled by why my Canadian edition has a gossary (it’s hardly necessary — more like a little side-joke at the end of the book) and author interview (I never find them of much value — my interest is books, not authors, however) when the UK version doesn’t.

    As for “questions for discussion” I don’t think I have every read them. Indeed, when shopping in a physical book store and I come across a volume with questions, I generally put it right back on the shelf as “not meant for readers like me”. Obviously, I too have never been part of a reading group. And I am sure the search terms on your blog frequently turn up versions of what show up every day on mine: “bishop’s man book club questions” or “room book club questions”. Who are you and I to complain (since we can simply ignore them) if they are useful to others?

  15. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I tend not to like either books narrated by children or books primarily about children. Don’t get me wrong I love my grandchildren but when it comes to inspirational thinking or philosophical insight they just don’t hack it (Charlie Brown excepted!). Having said that, I certainly enjoyed the Dog in the Night-time and perhaps this one you’ve reviewed has some of the same sort of charm. So, while I wouldn’t seek this one out, your review would certainly prompt me to pick it up should I come across it.

  16. Lee Monks Says:

    ‘Questions for discussion’ sections at the back of a book ring the alarm bells. Though I imagine here is a book perfectly suited for such a feature. I guess it’s a handy aid for people that posture at reading groups – putative ‘book-lovers’ who are, in fact, out on the ‘culturally justifiable’ piss of a weeknight.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    TomC: I don’t think that child narrators necessarily imply a bad book (as your example shows), it is just that the device is used far too often by lazy authors. While it does not totally succeed, I don’t think this novel falls into that category,

    Lee: I am inclined to agree with you. The “host” needs to come up not only with food and drink, but a discussion structure for the evening. Very handy if the book comes with one — more time can be spent choosing food and drink.

  18. Colette Jones Says:

    Both you and John Self are more generous with this one than I am. I don’t have a problem with child narrators but there are those written well and those not. This one was pretty boring I thought. The other Kelman, however, knows how to do it (have you read Kieren Smith, Boy?)

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: My more positive (less negative?) response probably comes down to me having some affection for Harri — I certainly ended up liking the character more than I did the novel. And I can understand that if you didn’t take to him, the novel would certainly be boring since I think the quality of “social observation” is not particularly high., I haven’t read Kieron Smith, Boy since I didn’t like James Kelman’s Booker winner and that, combined with some aversion to child narrators, put me off it. Certainly, by reputation, it deserves to be mentioned in the child narrator discussion that we have been having here.

  20. anokatony Says:

    I gave up on ‘Pigeon English’ after 60 pages. I had such a strong feeling of ‘Been there, Read that’, I though it was pointless to continue.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: I didn’t have any problem finishing it, but I can assure you that the tenor of the book has been established by page 60 so you didn’t miss anything.

  22. Benjamin Speaks Says:

    Perhaps the reason you gave up on the book is that it is not written in an authentic voice? Lots of black writers in the UK, like Peter Ashley who wrote “Angry People Smiling,” fail to get the publicity they should for their work, yet here we have a novel that is the literary equivalent of “black face” like we had years ago in television shows such as “The Black and White Minstrels” taking a hell of a lot of the limelight. If you want to actually feel the cultural perspective in a story of this nature, if a story of this type is to grip you until the final page, it helps if it is written, not only from the imagination but by the author living and breathing the particular culture of the main characters. That is why novels like Pigeon English” and “The Help” fail whereas novels like “Angry People Smiling” work.

  23. George E Says:

    I’m always amused by the rating of art; a number of people asserting that it’s “bad,” or “ho-hum” or “fantastic” or anything between. I enjoyed Pigeon English a great deal; it’s an everyman plot set in an appropriate setting and to speculate on whether or not a teenaged narrator “works” or “doesn’t work” is entirely beside the point. Life happens to all ages of people and were there not novels seen through the eyes of children, teenagers, adults and seniors, there would be a decided gap in our literature.We all need to recognize that we read through the filter of our prejudices, biases and preferences; if you don’t like a book, put it back on the shelf; it was meant for somebody else. To rate a novel or film on a star system strikes me as absurdly presumptuous, like declaring that pomegranate tastes good . . . or doesn’t.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    George: You raise an intriguing point. While I don’t use a star system on this blog, I have no problem with bloggers who do. On the other hand, I find the star ratings on Amazon or Chapters to be of virtually no value.

    I don’t hesitate to say I liked or did not like a book (and very much expect that from bloggers and reviewers) but the most important thing for me is the “why” of the opinion. I found Pigeon English lacking from a number of points of view but, as your comment illustrates, I can understand why others reached a much different conclusion. I would like to think that people could read my critical response and conclude “well, he might not have liked that, but I think I probably would”. The same is true, of course, for an enthusiastic review — and that is why I find a simple star rating system to offer little.

  25. Issy Says:

    I loved this book and the main reason is that Harri came alive for me. I cared for him and loved the way he was acclimatising to London and a rough counicl estate. The book made me laugh and cry and would highly recommend it.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Issy: Thanks for the comment — as you can tell from other comments here, Pigeon English is one of those novels that provokes dramatic range of responses. I suspect for that reason alone it is going to be a book club favorite for the next few years.

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