Book Review: 2011 Short Listed: Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English

Pigeon_EnglishRating: 4
Pigeon English
A Novel by Stephen Kelman
2010 / 272 Pages

The Setup: Lying in front of Harrison Opuku is a body, the body of one of his classmates, a boy known for his crazy basketball skills, who seems to have been murdered for his dinner.

Armed with a pair of camouflage binoculars and detective techniques absorbed from television shows like CSI, Harri and his best friend, Dean, plot to bring the perpetrator to justice. They gather evidence—fingerprints lifted from windows with tape, a wallet stained with blood—and lay traps to flush out the murderer. But nothing can prepare them for what happens when a criminal feels you closing in on him. (From the hardcover edition)

This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 9/15/2011

First time author Stephen Kelman’s debut novel Pigeon English is billed as something of a murder mystery, and while this is technically true, it is most certainly not its primary intent. Be forewarned that if you’re picking this title up thinking it will be a stellar piece of whodunit crime fiction you’ll most likely end up utterly disappointed. That said, what the novel does reveal itself to be over the course of its two hundred and seventy-two pages far exceeds the expectations set by the publisher’s description.

Eleven year-old Harrison, or Harri as he’s called by his friends, has recently relocated from Ghana to live in a seventh floor flat on an inner-city council estate in England. His father and baby sister have been left behind, but are hoping to join them soon. It’s in these new surroundings; having traded in a life lived in one form of poverty for another, and having been separated from half his family and his lone male role model, that Harri must learn to adapt to an entirely new culture.

Infused with Ghana slang throughout, the novel is primarily a coming of age tale as told mostly through the eyes of its eleven year-old narrator. He’s aged enough to understand that there’s evil in the world, but he’s still young enough to believe that it can all be magically stamped out by one set of whimsical circumstances or another. When an older boy is murdered outside a fast food chicken restaurant and no one comes forward with details to help the police investigation into the crime, Harri and his television crime show obsessed friend Dean believe they have what it takes to crack the case all on their own.

In this respect, there’s really not much of a mystery. For most of the book it’s fairly obvious who the culprit is. There aren’t nearly as many twists and turns as you’d expect from other novels which would place themselves squarely in the crime fiction genre. Instead here the reader is privy to a first hand account of growing up living in low income housing on a development that’s been overtaken by gangs and lives in fear of the daily violence that comes along with them.

Where the novel shines is in Harri’s narration as he begins to immerse himself in his new life. There’s nothing earth shattering in terms of the presentation of the young male voice here. If you’ve read other novels with similar protagonists (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Exley, and Kieron Smith, Boy quickly come to mind) then you get the general idea, but where Kelman goes above and beyond is with his realistic presentation of the grind of an inescapable daily routine that’s fraught with the potential of danger and violence lurking just around every street corner and behind every closed door. Low income housing, poverty, and gangs have become and unfortunate part of every day life for millions around the world and sadly this novel was inspired by true events.

Wisely there’s some light-hearted humor injected throughout the story that helps to balance out the bleak nature of the subject matter. Harri’s heavy use of Ghana slang, which may have you hunting for help from an online dictionary at first feels like a clever gimmick at the start, but by the conclusion it’s obvious that this melding of languages is just one more device that Kelman successfully injects into the story in order to highlight our cultural differences as we all attempt to live together in harmony with one another and makes sense of the larger world around us all.

Confused by some of the Ghana slang words you’ve encountered while reading Pigeon English? Here’s a handy cheat sheet to help you out.

Asweh: I swear
Bulla: Penis
Chook: to stab
Dope-fine: mighty good
Gowayou: Go away you
Hutious: frightening
Sound: a slap



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