Book Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Title: Pigeon English
Author: Stephen Kelman
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-1-4088-1063-7
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 288 pages
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Pigeon English is narrated by Harrison Opoku, an eleven-year-old who has recently moved from Ghana to a high rise flat in inner city London. When a boy is stabbed near his home Harri teams up with CSI fan and friend Dean to try and solve the murder. He’s also busy trying to fit in and learn the street smarts necessary to survive while showing a more innocent side, caring for a pigeon that appears on his family’s balcony.

Harri is fond of showing that he’s learning the rules, creating lists to demonstrate he knows what’s what, and desperately wants to be part of the in-crowd, turning his cheap trainers into Adidas lookalikes with a marker pen and talking the talk. The vocab he uses is spot on, reading the book was like listening to my teen step-daughter. However while he is fully aware of the gang activity going on around him and the dangers it presents he is still quite naive and too willing to believe everything he is told.

This really is a book of contrasts. While he has is being pulled into a very grown-up world he is still a child. A couple of phrases that appear repeatedly are that something was the funniest thing he ever saw, or that he’d bet a million pounds on x or y. It comes across as typical, childish exaggeration. While he is doing tasks to be accepted into the Dell Farm Crew, the local gang, he is also concerned for the pigeon he adopts and joins in superstitions like avoiding the cracks on the pavement to make sure something good happens.

Harri’s family has been split, with his mother bringing him and his older sister Lydia to the UK, while his father and grandmother remain in Ghana with his baby sister. Harri dotes on his baby sister and is looking forward to them all being reunited. While his mother apparently brought her family over on a legitimate visa Auntie Sonia has less regard for the legalities required. Her boyfriend is a thug, but while Harri seems aware of what use he puts his baseball bat to it doesn’t look to bother him. Unfortunately while Harri has plenty of hope he doesn’t have enough fear and his forays into the bad wide world are threatening the safe home his mother has tried to establish for the family. Hearing some stories about life back in Ghana serves to further highlight the differences in the places and the communities.

I found Harri a very sweet character, a good kid who has been dropped into a threatening environment but still trying (mostly) to do the right thing. I was rooting for him and Lydia, who has found herself a poor example of a best friend, to get a happy ending. The parts narrated by the pigeon made for an interesting diversion, and its pieces were both funny, sweet and thoughtful, although in some places I did have to work to see how it fitted into the plot. It makes for a good picture of how life might be for a recent immigrant in a big and, initially, completely alien city.

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