PIGEON ENGLISH by Stephen Kelman (Britain, 2011)

If, like me, you regard pigeons as rats with wings you will find it hard to accept that one of this breed of flying vermin could be an articulate, spiritual guide to a young boy on a London housing estate.

This is the weakest premise of an otherwise well-intentioned debut novel that was shortlisted for the Booker prize and is shortly to be adapted by the BBC.

There is blood at the beginning and blood at the end. It begins with the immediate aftermath of a seemingly motiveless murder : “You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy”.

The victim of this stabbing is known  only as “the dead boy”.  The story was partly inspired by the real life killing of 10 year-old Damilola Taylor on a Peckham estate  in 2000. As well as a link to Taylor’s trust fund, the acknowledgements also list the website for the Families Utd support group.

The narrative voice throughout is that of Harrison Opoko (‘Harri’) aged 11, newly arrived in the UK from Ghana who lives the same estate as the victim with his mother and sister, Lydia. His father and other baby sister are still in Africa trying to save enough money to join them.

Harri and his best friend Dean fancy themselves as amateur sleuths and set out to find the killer. This puts them on collision course with the estate gang of older boys known as the Dell Farm Crew, one of whom is may or may not be responsible for stabbing the ‘dead boy’.

Stephen Kelman

The slangy expressions he uses establish Harri’s identity. As well as being a reference to the talking bird, the title is obviously a play on the ‘pidgin’ or simplified vocabulary adopted by non native English speakers like him. Some of the words he uses throughout include:

  • “advise yourself “(get a life)
  • “donkey hours” ( a long time)
  • “hutious” (frightening / awesome)
  • asweh” (I swear)
  • “bo-styles” (fashionable)

He is streetwise in that he knows it’s a good idea to be armed and be continually on your guard against violence. There’s also a naivety particularly when it comes to girls; for example, he thinks being sucked off is the same as heavy petting.

In recent fiction, the most obvious comparison here is to the voice of Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time. Harrison does not, as far as we know, suffer from any form of autism but his off-centre way of seeing the world has quite a few similarities. Here’s how he describes one of his neighbours:

“Fag Ash Lil lives on floor 2. She’s called Fag Ash Lil because she picks up old fags from the ground. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. She never smokes them, she just puts them in her pocket. She’s the oldest person I’ve ever seen, at least two hundred years. When she was little there were no cars and every day was a war. She always wears the same dress with no coat or socks, even when it’s raining, and her legs are skinny like a bird”.

His religious views seem partly to be aping the point of view of his parent’s generation: “People who don’t follow God are called non-believers. They’re lost in the dark and can’t feel anything, they’re just empty inside like a robot with the wires taken out”. If he does have a strong faith, he also learns from experience that it won’t protect you much from evil; “the devil’s too strong around here”, he says at one point.

I found the novel entertaining at first but the story quickly lost momentum and became repetitive. Harri’s voice didn’t always sound authentic and the philosophical pigeon (although only a peripheral presence) got on my nerves.

It is good in that the novel raises important questions of how children have to come to terms with violence at a young age but the unnecessarily brutal finale makes me think that Kelman didn’t believe his novel would be powerful enough unless he gave it a ‘shock’ ending.