Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

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Pigeon English – a good book spoilt by a bird.

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.

Sample text:

“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.”

Further Reading:

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

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

The Woman In White - The first detective novel?

The Woman In White – The first detective novel?

This is another of those books I only read because it’s on the BBC Big Read List (2010), but I’m glad I did read it.  It’s kind of a Victorian gothic mystery drama and has one of the best baddies of any book I’ve read in Count Fosco.  He’s so deliciously charmingly evil I can’t help liking him a bit.

The story begins as Walter Hartright is employed as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie (a ‘live-in’ art tutor if you please – gives some indication of the kind of wealth these characters have!)  They soon fall in love, but Laura is betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde.  When a mysterious woman in white starts appearing, and leaves a letter for Laura, warning her away from Glyde, it is up to the detective skills of Hartright to figure out who this mystery woman is and what she wants.

It’s quite a long book and you’ll need to invest some time in reading it, but I would recommend this above a lot of ‘classic’ literature.  It’s credited as one of the first ever detective novels and I think a lot more happens in this than other Victorian stories, which can be a bit long and worthy sometimes.

Collins had a background in legal training and, as such, this novel is told from many angles as a court case would be.  Some of the accounts contradict each other and so, we the readers are left trying to work out who is a reliable witness to events and who is self-serving. (Don’t worry; it all becomes clear in the end).  This makes for an interesting concept as it requires some input from the reader, as if perhaps we are the jury in this case.

Sample text:

“Not the shadow of a doubt crossed my mind of the purpose for which the Count had left the theatre. His escape from us, that evening, was beyond all question the preliminary only to his escape from London. The mark of the Brotherhood was on his arm—I felt as certain of it as if he had shown me the brand; and the betrayal of the Brotherhood was on his conscience—I had seen it in his recognition of Pesca.”

Further Reading:

If you like a good detective story you might like The Maltese Falcon

If you like a good gothic baddie you might like Frankenstein

If you like a good mystery thriller you might like The Shadow of the Wind

Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - an epic love story

Love In The Time Of Cholera – an epic love story

Love in the Time of Cholera is a story about the relationship between Fermina Daza, a well educated but impressionable girl and Florentino Ariza, a wildly romantic, impulsive boy. Their love affair begins when they are teenagers.   Florentino notices Fermina in the street and pursues her with love letters. The couple only ever see each other in passing; their love is conducted through notes and letters until two years later, when her father Lorenzo discovers their affair and decides to take Fermina on a trip, to return only when she has forgotten Florentino.

Fermina stays with her family on this trip, and her cousin Hidebranda helps her to re-establish contact with Florentino once again, through telegraph.  Yet, two years later she returns and declares she wants nothing more to do with him, instead consenting to marry Dr Juvenal Urbino, whom her father greatly approves of.  Upon hearing of their marriage, Florentino initially vows to save his virginity for Fermina, content to wait patiently for the doctor’s death.

Years go by and Florentino gives in to his desires, starting hundreds of affairs which he conducts in secret, in order to make Fermina believe he is waiting for her. This can never discuss with Fermina as once again, they only see each other in passing at public events.

Meanwhile, Fermina’s marriage is unhappy, through infidelity and distrust.  We follow their lives for fifty years until the doctor suddenly dies.  Upon his death, Florentino once again declares his love.  Finally Fermina reciprocates.  They sail off on a trip together, raising the yellow flag on board their ship.  This flag represents a cholera outbreak, meaning no port will let them dock and they are forever exiled together, sailing the river.

It has been suggested that the cholera of the book’s title is a metaphor for lovesickness.  This is a constant theme throughout, especially as Doctor Urbino works tirelessly to eradicate the disease.  When, at the end the yellow flag is raised, this is symbolic of Florentino’s complete surrender to his condition.

What I liked about this book is that the characters are flawed.  We witness two people desperately trying to move on with their lives yet failing without each other. We follow Florentino on his countless affairs, relationships, loves and one night stands.  Yet throughout he is dissatisfied as none of these women are Fermina.  We also witness Fermina with her snobbery, trying to be happy with the doctor and their place in society, yet never quite achieving true happiness until the end.

Sample Text:

“With her Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them. Alone in the midst of the crowd on the pier, he said to himself in a flash of anger: ‘My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse.”

Further reading:

If you like the long awaited romance you might like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin