Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

While the last book I wrote a review for was described as undoubtedly almost a really good book, Stephen Kelman’s debut novel is undoubtedly a fabulous book. If it’s not on the prescribed reading list for schools in the very near future, something has gone entirely awry. Teachers, it’s time to relegate The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Great Expectations and so many others to the dusty shelves of the storage room. Pigeon English is funny, culturally and politically poignant, current and educational; and considering that the aforementioned classics were school texts when I was in school (a long time ago) it really is time to introduce some fresh material? In fact, Pigeon English is a great book for people of all ages. I loved it!

Loosely based on the murder of Damilola Taylor in 2000, by two 12-year-olds with a broken bottle, Kelman describes the unnerving reality of child gangs on council estates. In fact, Kelman was raised on an estate himself, so he has first-hand, authentic experience. The narrator of the story is 11 year-old Harri Opoku, a newly arrived Ghanaian immigrant. He is charming, witty, the second fastest runner in his grade, and learning about love for the first time. He is all 11-year-old innocence, working out the logistics of his new life – the old culture interacting with the new. Inevitably he is caught up in the brutal gang mores of the estate, teetering between membership and exclusion. Initiations decide the outcome, but either way is a no-win situation.

When another boy he knows is murdered outside the fried chicken shop and left to bleed to death on the pavement, the body is witnessed by everyone. Harri and his friend Dean take it upon themselves, in typical, naïve, kid-style fashion, to become detectives and find out who the killer is. Un-be-known to them how dangerous such an endeavour could become, they set out in search of the murder weapon.

This is a very bleak story, one with an inevitably fatalistic ending, but with Harri’s charismatic personality and his quirky Ghanaian-English (there’s a glossary in the back of the book), we’re barracking for him the whole way. You’ll find yourself muttering words like asweh (I swear) and hutious (scary, frightening), and telling people to advise themselves and that things are proper vexing.

His relationship with a pigeon that visits the balcony of his family’s flat, is an interesting although seemingly superfluous addition to the story. Its function is never really explained to the reader, but perhaps with the absence of Harri’s father who is still in Ghana, he possibly views the bird as a presence watching over him, a god-like fixture or imaginary friend who comforts and counsels him in the dark times.


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