Category Archives: Stephen Kelman

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.

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

Reading With Authors #2: Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman; With Naomi Wood

Today we are off via the magic of the internet (and a little bit of imagination) to an author’s house in London, not a million miles from the very streets where today’s book for discussion ‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman is set. We’ve rung the doorbell, had a nosey around and join the lovely Naomi Wood (and take over her house) for the second in the series of ‘Reading With Authors’.

  

So Naomi, even though I am actually in your house for today’s virtual meeting do make yourself comfortable… tea or coffee? Any biscuits you would like? I brought a box but fear Belinda and I might have eaten all the digestives last week

I am sitting very comfortably, thank you, in my expansive countryside cottage looking over rolling hills. Not really. We are sitting in my ex-council flat in London with the dehumidifier on (making lots of noise; problem with damp.) Please can I have a large double mocha skinny frappe latte? No? Okay. Cup of tea and a fig roll please. That would be ‘hutious’.

‘Advise yourself’ Naomi. I can’t quite remember why it was that we chose this book can you? I know it was one that I had been meaning to read for a while, what was it that had made it a book on your hit list? (And we can be quite smug in saying we chose to discuss this before the Man Booker Longlist was announced…)

I think it’s been a very talked-about book and I already knew a lot about it before I did the Brighton Book Festival with Stephen. I was very intrigued as I’d seen him on the Waterstones’ Eleven list (I always think that sounds like a police roll call) and lots of people were talking about that. Also, what with the riots, it seems timely to be talking about a book that looks at youth violence, poverty, gang culture…

The first thing to ask really is if you enjoyed it?

I did enjoy it: the voice of Harrison was flawless, I thought. You never really broke with that voice, and I was surprised at how funny it was. I thought Harrison was a loveable, good character, full of optimism. His relationship with Poppy, his girlfriend, was just lovely. That said, I was surprised that I wasn’t much emotionally moved. Bad things happen in the novel and, perhaps because of the alacrity with which you read it, and how quickly they’re narrated, I can’t say that I shed a tear or felt much conflicting emotion.  But then maybe I’m an uncaring bastard. Did you?

I sort of did and sort of didn’t all in one. That isn’t to say I thought it was a bad book by any means, it’s just one I couldn’t always get a handle on. It seemed Stephen Kelman had almost too much he wanted to include. The youth led crime of London’s city streets; the past of Harrison’s life in Ghana, the struggle for money and opportunities, there was a lot there and yet…

People always say that’s the problem with first novels, right? That there are always about three books crammed in rather than one clear story. But I actually disagree with you on this one. I actually wanted more rather than less. Specifically, I wanted the detective story much more in the foreground. I loved the idea of a ‘council estate whodunit’. I thought it was going to be much more like A Curious Incident…, in the sense that the main story is propelled by the desire to find the killer, but somehow that always seemed rather secondary to the comic colourful scenes on the periphery: painting Adidas stripes on his trainers, Mr Frampon singing too loudly at church, his fear of Miquita ‘sucking him off’ (Harrison thinks this is a term for ‘deep kissing’). I did enjoy all of this – it gave such colour and immediacy to Harrison’s life as a new immigrant in England – but I wanted more of the detective story, and fewer tangents. Hold on, have I just agreed with you?

I think you might have. I think the book needed to be longer or ‘deeper’ really, so maybe I am agreeing with you? The book opens with a really shocking scene; it’s no spoiler to say a young boy has been knifed to death seemingly for his ‘Chicken Joe’s’ meal deal. I was thinking to myself that this was going to be a hard book to read, and yet it’s very readable, sometimes almost too easy to read and digest. You may of course think I am bonkers saying that…

Yes, I think I agree with that. You get into such an enjoyable gallop with the voice that you forget to see that the countryside is burning, so to speak. And I think that’s a great achievement on the part of Kelman to make us so comfortable with the main narrator’s voice. Your thoughts, please, Mr Savidge, while you pour me another cup of tea?

Oh sorry, I was so into the chat I forgot about tea. Did you just mutter ‘rubbish host’ under your breath… Moving on. I actually wondered if the narrators voice, which I did really enjoy in a lot of respects, being one of a young boy made all the horrific things simpler and yet strangely diluted it all. Did you find this? Did you think the repetition of ‘asweh’, ‘donkey time’, ‘advise yourself’ etc added to the narrative voice or did it detract from it?

The voice, for me, was definitely the best thing about the novel. The whole novel hinges, completely, on the believability of Harrison’s voice. It also hangs on his hawkish (or pigeony?) eye: he sees things with such humour, that, yes, I suppose, sometimes you forget how depressing the council estate is, how rotten it is that his dad and baby sister are still stuck in Ghana and that the family are torn apart. Did the voice dilute the shocking nature of the events? No, I don’t think so. The fact that the boy’s murder was cribbed into everyday life just underlined how common incidents like this are in some communities. That’s sad. Some of the little verbal tics got irritating at times but nothing you can’t ignore (as with the pigeon… more on that later.) I actually liked ‘Advise yourself’. Perhaps I’ll start using it.

Ha, ha, ha. I can see you going around doing that Naomi. I did think the voice diluted it though, it was almost trying to over simplify it all. Maybe I just struggle with children’s narrators? I liked Harrison a lot, as I did the child in Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’, yet I do sometimes wonder if it’s used as a tool to emotionally manipulate people. Harrison’s voice rang true and I enjoyed spending time with him. I just felt it distanced me, rather than made me closer, to the events he was embroiled in. What do you think?

But I can’t see how the narrative could have been told in any other way than how it was presented. That’s the thing: this is a crazy child’s world where all the kids are acting like adults, and where serious adult things happen to children. With the adults strangely absent (or impotent, like the police) it’s the children left to sort it all out. It had to be told from the perspective of someone within the dead boy’s circle. But I know what you mean about child narrators. I find the irony we’re meant to experience, of knowing much more about the child than the child knows, a little frustrating sometimes. It’s always nice after reading books like this to read one from the point of view of a very old person who has an expansive and mutable voice rather than a child narrator who is necessarily curtailed by the limit of their young understanding.

Let’s turn to the ‘whodunit’ aspect of the book. By the way, I think if you liked this one for the detective angle then you would love ‘What Was Lost’ by Catherine O’Flynn. Back to ‘Pigeon English’ though… I did love the idea of Harrison and his friend Dean becoming detectives, that to me was a brilliant aspect of the book, we got inside a few addition characters worlds. That said it never quite fully formed itself as a device or sub-plot for me and I was never very sure I got to know any of the other characters, which I wondered if was the purpose behind it in some way, rather than just playing with the genre.

Yes, I really wanted more of the detective story! More attempts to get their school friends’ DNA, more lists like ‘Signs that people are definitely guilty’ (includes ‘farting too much’ and ‘religious hysteria’)… I felt like it was pretty obvious, really from the beginning, who had killed the boy…

Really? I didn’t. I missed it completely and got sidetracked by the red herring with a member of Harrison’s family…

…and I would have liked more derring-do, intrigue and a ‘whodunit feel to the story. I’d have liked to have found out more about the female characters, such as the sister and the mum, as their voices were quite sidelined in favour of the boys and the gangs. That said, I don’t think there was much space for that.

There is a lot of discussion that this isn’t a literary novel and I must add that I do think this book is in many ways. It combines page turning with the literary in fact. I don’t understand all the hoo-ha being made about it being on the Man Booker Longlist do you?

Pass me a fig roll before I politely disagree with you. I’m not crazily concerned with it being on the Booker list, but I do think the Booker is the only place for really, really literary work, and I don’t think this is, and I can’t even say why. It’s not the subject matter, or the way it’s related, or the child’s point of view… it’s not the fact there aren’t long ‘literary’ words in it: I know none of this is tantamount to making something ‘literary’. Perhaps it’s just because I didn’t come away with the feeling that I’d been changed, in a small but important way, by reading the book. I’ve just finished Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope trilogy, and after reading that I had to go away and have a good think. I didn’t feel like that in this case, which I’m not particularly concerned with, because I enjoyed reading it and I read it really quickly, and I laughed quite a lot.

I think you might have hit the nail on the head and succinctly described my issue with the book. I enjoyed it a lot, but it didn’t have the impact I was expecting, it didn’t change my views on the world. Without reviewing the book, which I will do separately at some point, I think we can say that with everything that has been going on in the UK with riots and the disillusionment/anarchy with young gangs that this is a most timely book. I thought in that sense actually this book would be great for a young adult readership as well as an adult readership. 

Yes, me too. I recommended Pigeon English to a school-teacher friend and he absolutely got it in a way that I think is because of his proximity to children of that age. I think it could definitely work as a YA novel too: teens could easily read this, probably understand all the slang quicker than us, and really get on with Harrison’s voice. I think a lot of teens would love it. That’s another thing I liked about it: it was so, so current, and it’s not often you get to read a book set very much now, in voices that are familiar to us.

Now, I have to bring it up… that ruddy talking pigeon. What was all that about? I think this is what maybe spoiled the book a little for me. I didn’t see the need. Am I just a miserable old cross patch?

Eh. Can I have another fig roll? I might talk with my mouthful to make this sound less shouty: I COULDN’T SEE WHY YOU NEEDED A TALKING PIGEON! I didn’t think it added anything, and, more than that, I thought it was pretty irritating: you switch from running around the streets looking for criminals to this high-minded, day-dreamy, bookish voice where the choice of language completely changes. However. It’s only a paragraph here and there, and is very easily ignored. It didn’t spoil it for me. Perhaps you are a miserable old cross patch…

I am tempted to launch some fig roll missiles at you for that comment Naomi, be warned. Ha! So would you recommend this book to a friend or to a book group? I actually think this would make a great book for discussion, I think it’s quite possibly a bookish equivalent of marmite…

Very marmitey. If they’re someone who loves funny books with a strong voice, and a page-turner too, then yes. And I would recommend this, definitely, to any teenager living in any British city. But if they’re more sort of bookish and, yes, probably more conservative in their tastes, then maybe not. I’m really glad I read it because my taste is shamefully narrow (all the authors I like are all white guys above the age of 50 with an eye on sort of existential melancholia, and I realise the limits of reading only about one type of experience about one type of person) and this book took me totally out of that zone. Would you?

I would, and I think in particular I would recommend that this is a book that adults who love to read should read with any teenage children they have. I will be recommending it to my mother in particular who works in a school where children come from these sorts of backgrounds and I think it would be a great novel for them to talk about. I do think that the publishers have missed a trick with that one. I also think, despite my own slight issues with it, people need to stop crouching about this book so much, for Harrison’s narration alone. I will also be very interested to see what Kelman comes up with next. Right, we best open the discussion up to everyone else hadn’t we…?

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Filed under Naomi Wood, Reading With Authors 2011, Stephen Kelman