'Pigeon English' Speaks Childhood Fluently
An engaging tale of a curious, enthusiastic boy who is never far from the shadow of danger.
Pigeon EnglishPublisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 288 pages
Author: Stephen Kelman
Publication date: 2011-07
Like Room, whose author Emma Donoghue provided an enthusiastic blurb, and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, to which it is occasionally compared, Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English is a novel for adults told in the remarkable voice of a child. All three virtuosic novels are worth reading if only to enjoy the spell those voices create.
In this fine company, Kelman's novel stands out because, unlike the five-year-old imprisoned boy of Room and the teenage autistic savant of Curious Incident, his narrator, Harri, is such an ordinary 11-year-old boy. It's just his misfortune to be coming of age in a gang-ridden neighborhood.
Harrison Opuku lives with his older sister and mother in a London housing estate (think housing project); his father and little sister still live back in Ghana. Harri's still catching on to English as the English speak it:
"In England there's a hell of different words for everything. It's for if you forget one, there's always another one left over. It's very helpful."
The lift in his tower has a pissy smell, but he relishes the view from his ninth-floor balcony, where he befriends a pigeon who becomes, more or less, his guardian angel.
Outside, a youth lies dead in his own pool of blood, knifed by someone unknown. "Me and the dead boy were only half friends," Harri says. "I said a prayer for him inside my head. It just said sorry... I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy."
Harri and his ginger-haired friend Dean, taking their lead from detective shows, decide to investigate, looking for the murder weapon and trying to find fingerprints on the scene. When not busy being an amateur "CSI" sleuth, Harri must navigate school.
"I know nearly all the rules now. There's over one hundred. Some of them are to keep you out of danger. Some of them are just so the teachers can control you." Being 11 and gullible, some are like this: "Don't swallow the gum or it will get stuck in your guts and you'll die."
Harri's also crushing intensely on a female classmate named Poppy, who slips him a note right before a holiday: "Do you like me?" with checkboxes for Yes and No.
This curious, enthusiastic youth is never far from the shadow of danger. He lives on turf ruled by a dominant local gang, the Dell Farm Crew. Its leader, X-Fire, seems to have a connection with Harri's sister Lydia. X-Fire wants to bring Harri into the fold, but Harri doesn't seem to be gang material. He can't even bring himself to carry a knife, the concealed weapon of choice in his neighborhood. It's "too hutious" (Ghana slang for frightening):
"If a war starts I'll just split instead, it's easier. I'm the best runner in the whole of Year 7, only Brett Shawcross can even catch me."
When Harri fails to follow through on two possible initiations, this marks him as a target for the gang's leaders. A thuggish boy, Killa, thumps Harri in the hallway for taking his fingerprints. Yet, while the world around him is becoming more threatening for Harri, his life is also getting better. He's a favorite in the school in the 400 meters, with his girlfriend cheering him on:
"I could see the finish line. I was nearly there. Poppy was waiting for me, she was clapping me home. It was like the biggest energy, I felt the spirit come into my lungs. I made my legs go higher, my arms swish faster. I was Usain Bolt, I was Superman. I was still alive and they could never catch me."
Kelman, the author, grew up in a housing development like Harri's. He took a real-life knife murder of an immigrant boy a decade ago as his starting point, but the youth he created is distinctly and wonderfully his own.