Archive for the ‘Kelman, Stephen’ Category

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

March 14, 2011

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:


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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