Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

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Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A bittersweet look at the life of a boy from Ghana transplanted to a British sink estate. It's funny, sweet and sad and the boy's voice has a great truth about it. Bookbag wasn't sure the magic realism element really worked.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1408810638

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Eleven-year-old Harri is the fastest boy in Year 7. It's true. He won the race and everything. Harri is quite new to London. He, his mother and his big sister Lydia have come from Ghana to make a new life and live on the ninth floor of a tower block on a sink estate. Harri's father and little sister Agnes are still in Ghana, saving up the air fare, which is taking quite a long time. Agnes is beginning to talk already.

Life in London is very different from life in Ghana and we first meet Harri at the scene of a murder. The dead boy was stabbed. He died right outside Chicken Joe's and Harri can see the dark pools of blood - it just felt crazy. So Harri and his friend Jordan decide to investigate the murder. It's clear to them that the police have no idea what they're doing, and what's needed is some CSI-stylee action, just like they've seen on TV.

And so we follow Harri as he navigates school life, estate life, home life, and an amateur investigation that is dangerous in a way he can see but not properly understand...

I loved this little boy. Kelman writes from inside Harri's head and his mind is a constant commentary on what he sees, hears and believes. His thoughts are jumbled and he leaps from one thing to another with great vigour and energy. He can relate a day at school, his distaste of kissing, his opinion on religion, all in the space of a paragraph. His childish narration is thus both utterly true and horribly unreliable. In some ways, his attitudes will evoke great affection and sympathy in his adult readers, but in others, they're very discomfiting. Harri is very accepting. He's matter-of-fact about violence and poverty and while he's a good kid, brimful of love and affection, he's also susceptible to peer pressure. He sees the gangs on the estate as both glamorous and wicked and at one point he does try to join one.

We don't like moral ambiguities and watching Harri trying to make good choices within his environment is difficult. He's too young to be able to make the kind of mature decisions he needs to be making and with his father away and his mother working long hours to pay back a loan shark, there's a lack of authority figures in his life, especially male ones. And yet, despite it all, the scales of life would weigh Harri as a good person, even though his mistakes are critical ones with terrifying consequences. He's loving, vivid, kindhearted and enthusiastic, and he deserves a much better hand than the one he is dealt.

It's difficult to write from a child's point of view without descending into the twee or contrived and for me, Kelman pulls it off magnificently. There's a slight degree of dramatic licence - sometimes Harri is a little bit too naive - but I felt his voice was utterly truthful and by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. I truly believed in this little boy and was completely invested in his story.

There's a magic realism element to the book that I thought was less successful. Harri loves pigeons and one pigeon in particular - this pigeon loves him right back and takes over the narrative for short and sometimes critical periods. I just didn't think it worked and the tone of these passages jars with the rest of the book. They are probably intended to jar, but to what end I just wasn't completely sure.

Even so, I wish this book every success. Its cast of supporting characters is every bit as vivid and recognisable as Harri and it has a truth about lives, loves and hopes in catastrophic environments that we all would do well to heed. I found it deeply, deeply moving.

My thanks to the good people at Bloomsbury for sending the book.

There's a great BBC interview with Stephen Kelman here.

The book has its own further reading suggestions, including Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. I think you might like to look at Teacher's Dead by Benjamin Zephaniah, which is a children's book, but also features a child detective in the aftermath of a stabbing. I'd also recommend The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle, which also has wit and humour in an angry world.

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Buy Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman at Amazon.com.

Booklists.jpg Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is in the Man Booker Prize 2011.


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