Pigeon English is the debut novel from Stephen Kelman and was nominated for the Booker prize in 2011. Based loosely on the Damilola Taylor case, and with support from the Damilola Taylor trust, this is a story about 11 year old Harrison, a Ghanaian immigrant living in a rough housing estate in London. A boy is fatally stabbed and Harri, along with best friend Dean set out to try and solve the case.
The story is told through Harri’s naive eyes, running through life in his self styled trainers, blissfully unaware of the real dangers of gang life. We the readers on the other hand can sense the imminent danger facing Harri if he doesn’t keep his head down and conform. From the outset we know, sadly there will be no happy ending here.
It’s written in a mixture of London street slang and Ghanaian expressions and I found myself reading it in a heavily accented voice, asweh! For this, among other reasons, the novel instantly seems authentic. The author himself grew up on a similar estate and has been widely praised for his ability to speak as an 11 year old would.
However, there is a downside to this book and that is the pigeon. At times it seems that the pigeon, believed by Harri to be watching over him is merely there to justify the book’s title. Apparently the bird is significant as it is supposed to represent the need to belong and the migratory nature of humans. This all seems a bit too worthy for my liking. There are even some passages narrated by said pigeon which I just don’t get.
However, overall, this is a good book for teenagers that has an appeal to adults also. Its greatest strength is the colour and naivety of the language used. Its only real weakness is that damn pigeon which seems to trivialize and romanticize what is really a serious subject, knife crime amongst Britain’s youth.
“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.”
If you like the naivety of the child’s narration you might like Room
If you like the challenges facing British immigrants you might like Mr Rosenblum’s List
If you like the street slang you might like The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao
If you like stories about the lost innocence of children you might like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas