Wednesday, 18 May 2011

A Cautionary Tale

Pigeon English is the debut offering from up-and-coming author Stephen Kelman. Set over a period of five months, the story is narrated by an eleven-year-old boy, Harrison Opoku, who has recently arrived in London from Ghana. Ostensibly about Harrison’s struggle to adapt to his new environment, the novel provides a damning insight into the many social problems, and the very real dangers, faced by kids living in inner-city housing estates today.

Fascinated by the recent stabbing of a boy from one of the local towerblocks, Harrison, inspired by TV shows like CSI, innocently sets about investigating the murder. In doing so, he unwittingly jeopardizes the safety of both himself and his family. Throughout the book, Harrison’s worldview is unfailingly optimistic and somewhat romanticized, and as such, he remains blissfully oblivious to the dangers that lurk all around. The reader, on the other hand, is painfully aware of the pitfalls he faces, and feels immense frustration that we cannot warn him of them.

Stephen Kelman
Among the novel’s most remarkable accomplishments is the authentic voice the author captures in his lead character. Apart from Emma Donohue’s Room, I cannot recall another writer who has so successfully ‘got inside the head’ of a child protagonist. Kelman’s depiction of Harri’s internal monologue is both unnerving and captivating.

Another of the novel’s successes is its convincing characterizations. Through Harri, the reader is introduced to an intriguing cast of characters, from the relatively harmless petty thief, Terry Takeaway and his pit-bull Asbo, to the ominous gang-members X-Fire (pronounced Crossfire) and Killa. This realistic portrayal of a cross-section of inner-city life adds a great degree of authenticity to the story. The one character that didn’t quite work was the pigeon – befriended by Harrison and cast in the role of his guardian angel, the paragraphs narrated by Pigeon seemed oddly out of place. The reader was left confused as to the pigeon’s relevance to the story until the very end.

Initially, the dialogue was baffling - a combination of Ghanaian English mixed with the grating and sometimes nonsensical slang favoured by London’s tough inner-city teenagers was more than a little bewildering. (Asweh, he was just a confusionist, innit!) Fortunately, any perplexity soon dissipated once the reader got to grips with the vernacular.

Pigeon English is a story that is both harrowing and uplifting by turns. At the end, however, the reader is left with a profound sense of heartbreak - not just because of Harrison’s fate, but also because we are only too aware that this is a story that plays out, in real life, every day, in the innumerable housing estates in our capital city and beyond.

4 / 5
Pigeon English is published by Bloomsbury.
With thanks to The Omnivore (

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