Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

There was quite a lot of furore when the Man Booker longlist came out wasn’t there? First up there was all the titles we hadn’t heard of, then there was the fact the big names were missing, and then there was debate over which titles should definitely not be on the list. ‘Pigeon English’, the debut novel by Stephen Kelman, seemed to be the novel that became the particular scapegoat in all this and so, along with the fact it was one of my ‘Reading With Authors’ choices with Naomi Wood, it became the one I most wanted to read first in part to see what all the fuss was about.

Bloomsbury, Fiction, 2011, 263 pages, sent by publishers

There is an underlying issue with ‘reviewing’ a novel like ‘Pigeon English’ and daring to critique it. It almost makes you wonder should you dare to because the subject matter is a delicate one, in the main it seems that Stephen Kelman took the story of school boy Damiloa Taylor’s death and wrote a fictional response about/to it. ‘Pigeon English is told by eleven year old Harrison Opuku, a young man who is also an immigrant from Ghana now living on one of the tower block council estates in London. This is an area of street gangs, poverty and violence; in fact the novel opens with the death of a school boy who Harrison sort of knew.  

“Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see him very much because he was older and didn’t go to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted him to fall off. I said a prayer for him inside my head. It just said sorry. That’s all I could remember. I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy. I could bring him alive in that way. It happened before, where I used to live there was a chief who brought his son back like that. It was a long time ago, before I was born. Asweh, it was a miracle. It didn’t work this time.”

Writing in a child’s narrative has become something of trend in modern contemporary writing, long before ‘Room’ we had ‘What Was Lost’ (and indeed the theme of child detective comes up in this book as Harrison and his best friend decide to hunt the killer), it is also a hard act to balance when on a tough subject. Can you hold the reader’s belief? Does the narrative ring true? Does the simplicity of the voice dilute the events that are happening? Sadly, for me at least, whilst I loved Harrison’s view on life, which often made me laugh out loud, it took away the impact of the novel. When you are spending time in the company of this lively witty young man you are also left missing a lot. I never felt I got to know any of the other characters deeply, the other school kids like X-Fire (pronounced Cross Fire) or Killa became almost like cartoon caricatures, his sister and mother has no real back story other than one being the matriarch and the other a bit of a pain. I also felt like there was a whole back story in Ghana I simply didn’t know enough about. Oh and I haven’t even started on the talking pigeon, something I didn’t think was needed or added anything other than making me a bit cross.

I’m aware this sounds harsh, and indeed there are many things that make this book highly readable. Harrison’s voice rings true and is a delight, it’s a novel very much ‘of the time’ and I it was highly readable – almost too readable for its topic. I wanted Stephen Kelman to give me more though, I wanted the wonderful ‘council estate whodunit’ thread to be more of a story rather than a game/accidental thread/plot device, I wanted to know much more about his mother and what was going on with Ghana. There was a certain vagueness, or maybe it was simply too closed in a horizon which children can have, for me and that turned what could have been a fantastic book into a good one but one that didn’t pack any emotional punch for me. If you have read this book then you will know it should have hit home harder all the way through but especially at the ending.

“You could see lighter burns on Miquita’s hands all shiny like wax. They weren’t even for a good reason like Auntie Sonia’s burns, they were just a trick. Killa only made them so Miquita would admire him. I even felt sorry for him then. I didn’t even have to burn Poppy to make her admire me, I only had to make her laugh. Somebody should tell him, laughing is the best way to make them admire you. It’s even easier than burning.”

All that said I would recommend ‘Pigeon English’ but maybe not so much for the adult market, and here I think Bloomsbury have missed a bit of a trick. This is a book with a wonderful child’s voice that should be being pushed into schools and aimed at a young adult market. In that setting, and with that audience, I honestly think this book would have an incredible impact. I would also recommend this as a good ‘book group’ novel, it’s a great one for discussion. Not just for its subject matter, but also for the joys and pitfalls of the child narrator in fiction.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think? I feel a bit like I am being ‘bah-humbug’ about it, but I did enjoy reading it, and whenever I did pick it up I certainly read it quickly. I just felt something was missing amongst all the signs of promise. I will certainly read Stephen Kelman’s next novel. You can see a discussion between Naomi Wood and myself about ‘Pigeon English’ here, be warned there was almost a fig roll fight so watch for any low flying biscuits.



Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Man Booker, Review, Stephen Kelman

14 responses to “Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

  1. I heard them talking about this one on the Guardian Books Podcast and lost interest when they said it featured a talking pigeon. I’m not a great fan of talking animals in books, or of non-realistic elements being thrown into what are otherwise quite realistic novels. I also have to admit that, even as a child, I was never terribly keen on books with children at their centre. So I doubt I’ll be reading this one. Congratulations nonetheless to the author on being longlisted for the Booker Prize. If we all liked the same things the world would be rather dull. I am curious, however, to discover what prompted the food fight when you were discussing it. I’m off to find out now …

    • The talking pigeon is a very small part of the book, its just one that I didn’t really see the need for and felt did a slight disservice to the book. Kelman has a good book without it.

      I completely agree with what you say about congrats to the author, now shortlisted, as we do all have different tastes and it would be dull if we didnt. I liked this, I just dont think I am its perfect audience.

  2. Great review! But if anything I have been tempted into trying this book (not something I was looking to do when the longlist was announced). I am just finishing Midnight’s Children, and, upon reflection, have been most moved by child protagonists and their ability to suspend a reader’s imagined restrictions on life when they are well developed. You point to this as a concern of yours – I’ll have to read it to try it out. I will say that it is the excerpts that you’ve provided that, above all else, have enticed me.

    • I think thats one of the great things about an honest review, they dont have to all be positive for people to want to go and read the book more. I think when people dont like a book it can make me equally curious as to when people rave about one. You might like this one. Its not a bad book by any means, it just didnt quite work in the way I hoped, I whizzed through it though.

  3. I was much more bah-humbug than you about this one. The Ghanaian accent bit was a bit frustrating. Even if mostly correct it still seemed like an unnecessary addition. Also, the pigeon?!?!! That made me quite angry!!

  4. Being from the U.S. I hadn’t heard of the Damiloa Taylor story or the stories of knife crimes that hit the press in the UK. I liked Harri and, like you, wanted much more of the back story from Ghana. As for everything else it all felt stuck together from bits and pieces of characters that seem shallow, and the pigeon made no sense to me.

    I find some books can cross over from adult to young adult or from YA to an adult audience. Pigeon English feels completely YA to me.

    • Yes I agree Gavin, I do think this is more a YA book than an adult book and I actually think that this would work a lot more in a YA context and hope some english teachers get reading and recommending this to their students.

  5. Amy C

    I’m about halfway through this book at the moment, and so far feel exactly the way you do. I like the character and his voice is amusing and easily readable. But so far it just doesn’t draw me in deeply, it’s missing something I guess. I’m from the U.S. as well, so am not completely familiar with the Damiloa Taylor story either. But with all the news coverage of the violence in London recently, I’ve been thinking this is a well-timed book in terms of subject matter. Love your blog by the way!

    • I think thats the slight issue I had, a ‘nice’ book to read about no so nice things. It needed something more, something almost grittier.

      Thanks for the kind comment Amy C – hope you will pop back.

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  9. EML

    I’m from the Kingdom of Belgium /:o} and just happen to finish the book earlier this day.
    My idea is that your review would sound rather the same as mine -you sure no copyrighttrespass ?o)
    Your suggestion to have it in schools for discussions, swell!
    As for the thoughts of about everybody here above concerning the pigeon, I do entirely disagree on that.
    On the contrary I dare say it goes just smoothly along with the boy’s phant-astical view on reality. And, as I’ve spend some lifetime in Ghana, I find the slangish words and expressions nicely completing the portrait.

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