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March 26, 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

I’ve lately aimed to avoid the “this meets that” construction in my book reviews, but this one I really want to share: Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is Emma Donoghue’s Room meets Lord of the Flies. Told from the perspective of Harrison Opoku, an eleven-year-old Ghanian immigrant living in the wilds of London, Kelmen’s first novel is the story of six months in a community wracked by gang violence, knife crime, drug abuse, poverty and other urban blights. Through the eyes of Harrison, however, we also see its spots of beauty– the delight of riding the tube, how the wind gusts at the base of the tower blocks, the doggy personalities of local unsavoury characters’ canine companions, the peculiar quirks of local language (and now I’ve just realized that the book’s cover features dual imagery, and now it’s making me cross-eyed). In particular, Harrison is attracted to the pigeon he feeds covertly from his balcony, and seems to serve as the kind of protecting force that he is otherwise quite lacking.

This is a braver book than Room, which sanitized the experience of its young protagonist. Kelman doesn’t soften blows, though Harrison’s is a refreshing perspective upon stories which are so familiar from the news. He is wide-eyed, taking in his new home without context, though even he recognizes that there is nothing ordinary about the blood on the pavement from the dead boy who was stabbed. (“The dead boy’s mamma was guarding the blood. She wanted it to stay, you could tell. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away, but she wouldn’t let it.” Um, and this is on the first page. Regardless of the upliftingness of Harrison’s perspective, the story doesn’t get easier than this. Consider yourself forewarned, but don’t necessarily be deterred.)

The most ordinary facts of childhood take place in extraordinary places, just as Donoghue made quite clear in her novel. Harrison and his friends play games, run fast, he holds hands with his girlfriend, and get into innocent mischief. He fights with his older sister, wants to please his mother, and longs for his father and baby sister who are still back in Ghana. However the CSI-styled games he plays with his friend get him into trouble over his head– his clumsy efforts to solve the murder of the dead boy attract the wrong kind of attention, and soon childhood games and real-life thuggery are entangled in irrevocable ways. (Kelman also shifts perspective a little bit at the end of the novel, similar to what happens at the end of Lord of the Flies*, to show that real-life thuggery itself is an extension of childhood games).

Problems with the book are worth mentioning: yes, there are paragraphs narrated by the pigeon, which is kind of unfathomable (“don’t let the pigeon drive the bus!”), but it’s only about 1% of the whole book, so don’t let it throw you off. I was also slightly unnerved about Ghanian slang delivered via a white writer, no matter how much he knows about working class communities, but part of this my problem and that issues of cultural appropriation are constantly under negotiation. In my mind, Kelman’s perspective was altogether convincing and issues of authenticity should be debated by somebody who isn’t me.

Pigeon English is a book a lot like its cover. Not that it will necessarily make you cross-eyed, but that it turns into something different the longer you look at it. That perception is always a matter of perspective, and in Harrison Opoku, Stephen Kelman has delivered an especially “lovely” one.

(*I know a lot about Lord of the Flies, because I wrote an essay on it in 1996. )

2 thoughts on “Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman”

  1. Charlotte says:

    I’m giving up on page 150! I feel terrible, because it is a very good book, but I’m starting to get a scent of where it’s going (also I read the last page because I am a bad person like that – I read the end before the middle) and I don’t think I can take the rest of the book. I’m too soft! I need to file this in some kind of “go back and read this book when your kids are 25, and safe” box.

    I don’t know, maybe I’ll try again tomorrow morning and see if I’m feeling less “sensitive” about it, but right now I just can’t bear to read any more…

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