Sunday, 4 September 2011

Book #78 Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English

Another nominee on this years list (I'm probably going to blog all of them from now til I finish) is Stephen Kelman's story of 11 year old Ghanian immigrant Harrison Opoku. The novel begins with the stabbing of a boy to whom Harri was vaguely acquainted and follows him, his sister and their friends from that point in March until the break up of school in July.
Like previous nominee Room by Emma Donoghue and Mark Haddon's Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, the novel is narrated by a child and Kelman manages to conjure a voice that feels genuine and authentic with his protagonist. Some of the lines that Harri and co come out with did make me laugh, such as when he refuses to let sister Lydia's friend Miquita inside their house unless she promises NOT to suck him off, his description of classmate Altaf   :

"Altaf is very quiet. Nobody really knows him. You're not supposed to talk to Somalis because they're pirates" 
 and the paranoid verdict of elderly congregation member Mr Frimpong upon the Catholic Church :

"Bleddy Catholics. They want to give us all AIDS so they can steal our lands back again. It's true."

and there are some great lines and anecdotes about the kind of banter and tall tales that go on between adolescent boys:

If a dog attacks you the best way to stop it is to put your finger up its bumhole. There's a secret switch up the dog's bumhole that when you touch it their mouth opens automatically and they let go of whatever they were biting. Connor Green told us. After he told us, everybody called Connor Green a pervert because he goes around putting his finger up dogs bumholes.
Kyle Barnes : Pervert!
Brayden Campbell : "Dogf---er!
I also liked it when "Advise Yourself!" was used as a retort to a stupid statement, I think I'll be using that in future! However the use of Asweh, Ghanian slang for 'I swear' became so repetitious throughout Harri's narrative as to become profoundly irritating.

Essentially the strength of the book is its believability, that its characters could be real rather than a fabrication created by an author and the way in which Kelman succeeds in maintaining this voice. It is also a voice of a type of character and community very seldomly represented in literature, the African immigrant community of a London housing estate. However, within that believability comes a problem, listen to young boys too long and they become annoying, prattling inanely about Diadora trainers and Samsung Galaxy phones and Haribo sweets and Youtube and things that matter to boys of that age but are acutely irrelevant and tedious to adults. It occasionally feels like machine gun fire. As with The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, I feel that this book is better suited to the Young Adult market despite its declaration at the back of the book that it is an "adult novel". I think young adults would love this novel and take more away from it.

The investigations by Harri and his friend Dean into the death of the boy at the start of the novel seem silly and fall rather flat. Whereas the efforts of young people trying not to get sucked in to gang culture hold more realism. Although again, it seems more the realm of young adult fiction that our characters set an example rather than sink into the inevitability of a "crew".

I felt critically towards Emma Donoghue's Room on the basis that I felt it was exploitative of the Fritzl case and the Natascha Kampusch case, at the end of this novel the website of the Damilola Taylor Trust is mentioned but yet I did not find that the novel "traded" on any similarities, which is a good thing.

Aside from this there is the problem of the "psychic pigeon" whose inner voice we occasionally hear. The psychic pigeon is redundant and almost a bit embarrassing for a novel whose beauty lies in realism : seeing big social problems from a young childs perspective. Clearly its a play on the concept of "pidgeon english" but its ridiculousness cheapens the novel slightly or so I felt.

Despite its shortcomings the novel has an almighty end, a wallop of a conclusion. Which is tragic yet perfect within the context. I feel it is the ending that has earned it its Booker nomination. That and the choice of protagonist and style, although adult novels written in a child's voice are becoming less and less original and more and more a cliched idea of "clever". In my opinion anyway.

I think this book earned its nod of recognition, but, I wouldn't want to see it win over either Jamrach's Menagerie or A Sense Of An Ending. 7/10


  1. Yeah, you keep making that point about being suited to "young adult". One of the marketing things I've picked up on as a slave wager graphic designer over the years is that people don't like to be reading for their particular tag... I bet it's kids who read the "young adult" stuff while the "generic young adults" are actually getting on with things and reading Vonnegut, Kerouak, Burroughs and so on.

    Just a thought.

  2. You make an excellent point, by 12 i was reading well beyond my so -called age range and was allowed to borrow from the sixth form shelf, by 14 I was reading adult contemporary. However, with Jessie Lamb particularly it just in no way shape or form is an adult book, one for precocious 12 yr olds such as my younger self! Its not he classification that mystifies me so much as the Booker nomination. I read the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness over the Christmas period and more recently his latest A Monster Calls, all four books transcend their young adult tag and have something to say to all ages in a way that Jessie Lamb doesn't manage, more like a watered down Atwood. Pigeon English has more crossover value but only slightly given some of the inanities although its point of interest for an adult reader would be the insightfulness in relation to boys of this age in these communities that are rife with teenage murders purportrated by their peers.

  3. And of course in Pigeon English, there's the awfulness of the psychic pigeon concept, which again relegates it out of adult contemporary.

  4. I think its better to say "hey this is a really great crossover young adult book" than say "how on earth does this qualify as adult contemporary"