Thursday, 24 November 2011

Book review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English (2011) by Stephen Kelman

Harrison Opoku, an 11-year-old boy whose family have recently arrived in England from his native Ghana, is the narrator of this sad and funny hybrid of a coming-of-age tale and and a murder mystery. At the beginning of the book, a boy Harri vaguely knows is stabbed and killed, and he and his friend Dean set out to catch the murderer. Their mission forms the backdrop for Harri's lengthy observations on life in England: the social hierarchy of his school, a first crush on classmate Poppy, home life with his mum and sister in a London tower block, and his terror and admiration of a local gang - the Dell Farm Crew - who rule the surrounding estate. The title has a dual meaning - it refers to Harri's 'pidgin' English, peppered with schoolboy slang and misunderstood words, but also to the pigeon who visits Harri on his balcony, a creature he sees as his friend. The pigeon also serves as a second narrator, in brief interjections which add an intriguing (if ultimately disappointing) edge, suggesting that the bird is somehow watching over and protecting Harri.

Harri is a beguiling and very funny narrator, and Kelman has done a brilliant job of creating an entertaining narrative voice that's also thoroughly believable as that of an 11-year-old boy. So authentic is Harri's narration that I was quite surprised to learn that Kelman is white and British, though not at all surprised that he apparently grew up poor. The book practically exudes a particular kind of masochistic working-class nostalgia, and the setting and its details jump off the page. The story captures perfectly the wonders of childhood and innocence, even in such a bleak environment, in a way that made me remarkably nostalgic for my own schooldays. It's by turns endearing and scary in its depiction of how quickly the children of today are forced (and expected?) to grow up.

The problem with authentic-sounding child narrators is that, after a while, they become exhausting and a little annoying (just as you'd get fed up if you had to listen to a child telling the equivalent of a 300-page story, complete with random and irrelevant diversions). I did find Harri tremendously engaging as a character, and laughed out loud at his observations - especially about school - and misinterpretations on a frequent basis. But I thought the story would have been so much better if a variety of viewpoints had been used: if, as well as Harri, we'd been able to hear from his mother, some of the older gang members, Lydia and Miquita, one of the teachers, the police, even the murdered boy. The contributions we hear from 'the piegon' are very well-crafted, so Kelman obviously has the ability to pull this off. There are so many fascinating characters in the book, all of whom undoubtedly would be able to cast a very different light on its events, and it seems a shame to confine the narration to one young character. Harri's naivety and optimism is an effective filter for the brutal circumstances that surround him, but this only works up to a point before it limits the story and becomes quite frustrating. I kept thinking of Simon Lelic's Rupture, which used multiple narrators to explore the issues surrounding a similarly shocking event - a school shooting - with far more effective results.

The ending is also problematic. Without giving away what happens, it's very blunt, unsatisfying and somewhat anticlimatic following the gradual building of tension throughout the prior chapters. I can understand why the author chose to end the book like this, but I felt cheated more than shocked (and I presume the latter was the intended reaction). I also felt the central mystery, initially introduced as the linchpin of the plot, was never satisfactorily resolved and the abrupt change of direction felt like the author was dodging the responsibility of having to deal with this.

In the end, this is a beautifully crafted and convincing narrative which unfortunately feels incomplete without another voice, another perspective, or a properly conclusive ending. Kelman has done enough here that I am pretty certain I will be interested in his future work, but Pigeon English feels like exactly what it is: the debut novel of a young author. I can understand why some complained about this (among others) being on the Booker Prize shortlist, because honestly, it's not on that level at all - although the author may be, someday.

Rating: 7/10

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