Pigeon English – a story of promise snatched

I loved Pigeon English right from the get-go. When I saw the comparisons on the cover to Room and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night I suspected I would. Stephen Kelman taught me the word ‘hutious’ (meaning frightening in Ghana) and totally transported me to a run-down London estate where I became immersed in the life of adolescent immigrant Harri Opoku and his family.

I could imagine this book as a film (and indeed it has been picked up by Skins director Adam Smith for a TV adaptation) – it could work even if the whole of Kelman’s first person prose was superimposed over the video track as narration – such is its power. I love an author who can write a person’s thoughts faithfully and authentically, which is especially hard when the character is a child. If you’ve never written a child, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was easy – but children are so complicated, their minds are so wild and untrammelled – they can imagine worlds of possibility in ways that adults can’t – and it is this juvenile creativity that Kelman reproduces so effectively.

I loved Emma Donoghue’s Room and her child narrator, Jack, but I did have slight misgivings about the authenticity of his narration – with Harri I had none. The way he weaves the harsh reality of his life on the estate with his own rich imaginative landscape is seamless – and it reminded me of what it was like to be a child. You take the half-truths given to you by adults, or gleaned from what’s going on around you, and you fill in the blanks. Sometimes this results in a more magical world and sometimes this incomplete understanding has devastating consequences. Both outcomes are compelling in their own way in this book.

When asked in a Q&A with Foyles who his favourite character in the book was, Kelman replied: “Harrison… We see the world through his eyes, he’s the narrator of the story and I love him; he has so much exuberance, so much curiosity for the world, and I think writing him was an inspiration to me. He’s a character that I’ve taken with me and he’s a good kid, I’m very fond of him.” I have to say, I felt very much the same.

The Observer claims the book “is too conscious of the gulf between its subjects and its inevitably middle-class readers to be truly convincing” but I tend to wonder why this consciousness is considered a negative. Kelman, who himself grew up on an estate in Luton, and who was still living there at the time of writing the book, is no doubt aware of the gap between his average reader and his characters. But isn’t it the job of the writer to present us with new worlds and provide us with a window of understanding into them?

Harri is eleven, still young and relatively innocent. A reader can love him easily. But as we watch him walk the tightrope of adolescence between the expectations of his strict Ghanaian mother and the temptations and threats of the local Dale Farm Crew,  we don’t know which way he will turn – there’s something thought-provoking about that. Kelman presents us with a more nuanced dilemma than that which is set out in news stories. He seems to indirectly pose the question: what will sweet, loveable Harri be like when he’s sixteen, given the paths that fork out around his feet at eleven? How will he be perceived by the readers who loved him in this book?

How often do we see in the media a fierce indignation on the part of ‘innocent kids’ with tough upbringings, only for it to turn to disgust when they get a little older and become  ‘feral teens gone wild’. Amongst other things, Kelman’s fantastic debut novel reminds us that one tends to morph into the other, and there are always more complex forces at work than simple good and bad.

An engaging, lively and effortless first novel that navigates the treacherous terrain between childhood and the realities of adult life.

Buy this book


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