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.
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.