PIGEON ENGLISH by Stephen Kelman
This novel was launched earlier this year on a wave of advance publicity following a surprising bidding war between publishers for the rights – surprising because this is Stephen Kelman’s first book. Like the previously reviewed Rupture by Simon Lelic, another debut novelist, this is a work that is recognisable within the confines of the crime genre and yet one that many will feel doesn’t comfortably belong there. Both have plots centred around a seemingly senseless crime in London’s urban sprawl and both try to reveal some greater truth beneath acts of violence all to familiar from the nightly news. While Lelic’s book was mostly notable for taking in over a dozen points of view, Pigeon English is much more narrowly focused though it too goes to great pains to paint a convincing picture of contemporary modes of speech and behaviour as used by inner city youth.
Kelman’s book takes as its starting point a true-life incident: the tragic case of Damilola Taylor, the 10-year old boy born in Nigeria who shortly after moving to the UK was attacked and left to bleed to death on an estate in South London in 2000. The novel’s central character is Harrison ‘Harri’ Opoku, an 11-year old recently arrived from Ghana with his mother and his older sister Lydia. His father, grandmother and beloved baby sister have all had to stay behind until they too can find the money to travel. We see the world through the Harri’s eyes as he narrates a story about how he tries to settle in to a new and alien environment When a boy he knows from school is stabbed to death outside a fast food shop, Harri decides to investigate the crime using the techniques he has learned from television, describing it in the sometimes confusing language he is picking up at school.
Asweh, planting a gun just felt too crazy! At least if you’re planting plants they’ll grow into something. A gun doesn’t even grow into anything. I pretended like I planted a gun and a lot of baby guns grew up from the ground. Then I sold them at the market.
Explaining the adult world through the more innocent perspective of a child has yielded some extraordinary literary results, from the understated melancholy of JD Salinger’s classic novel of teen angst and rebellion The Catcher in the Rye (1951) to the subtle machinations of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), though in the case of the latter the narrator looks back at his life from the point of view of old age. Here we experience everything almost exclusively from Harri’s prepubescent perspective so that the casual intimidation of the school playground are barely differentiated from the harsh tribalism of gangs on the street – both are frightening and both are just part of his everyday life.
The book is set in little over a season, spanning from March to July in a single year and is described zestfully and even sweetly through Harri’s colourful argot, a mixture of his mother-tongue and the usually misunderstood newly learned street slang. Like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), it’s the use of language and the way that it illuminates a young, inquisitive and developing mind that really holds the attention here but as the novel slowly moves forward the plot does in fact come into focus so that by the end we know who killed the boy and the reasons why. But is this really a crime novel?
Dean’s the best partner a detective can have, he knows all the tricks. I don’t even care of he has ginger hair. That’s what makes him so brainy (a detective’s best skill).
The book has quite a lot in common with such recent works as DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little (2003) and especially Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), in that their young protagonists also decide to investigate a crime without fully understanding what it is that they are doing or the potential danger that they are putting themselves in. Harri’s is a world full of humour and wonder but none the less one that is largely defined by different types of criminality – as the book progresses we learn that his Aunt Sonia burns off her finger prints to avoid potential deportation; and that Harri’s mother is paying back the money that got half the family to the UK to Sonia’s boyfriend, who carries a baseball bat he calls a ‘persuader’. Both Lydia and Harri get involved in the activities of the Dell Farm Crew, the local gang on the state, and as a result both are badly brutalised by boys and girls barely older than them. One scene, involving a hot iron, is particularly harrowing though Kelman shows great skill in not breaking out of his protagonist’s perspective. This later pays off in a highly satisfying later in the book which shows thew brother and sister jointly deciding which world they are going belong to. To classify this work as purely a crime story would be a bit like defining Harper Lee’s classic novel of 1930s Alabama as a courtroom drama – not exactly inaccurate, but certainly too limiting to be helpful. Kelman’s book has procedural and suspense elements but uses the backdrop of a crime to focus on the way that people react to it, but also to comment on the distressing way that it can in deprived communities be absorbed into the fabric of everyday life.
The one aspect of the novel that is perhaps less certain, and yet undeniably central to the novel, is a magic realist device – Harri is a pigeon fancier and gets attached to a particular bird who he encourages to comes and feed on the family’s ninth floor balcony. It is only comparatively late that the novel makes explicit something that some readers will have already surmised – that Harri is in fact telling his story to the pigeon. What is chancier within the structure of the book is that at various points we have access to the bird’s thoughts. This approach, handled so brilliantly in the peculiar but wonderful coming of age novel Birdy (1978) by William Wharton, is not meant to be taken literally since the tone is otherwise realistic and Harri speaks directly to the bird looking for answers that cannot come, he never hears one in return – but we readers do get access to the thoughts of this philosophising avian. It’s the only break we get from Harri’s POV and is clearly meant to be disruptive and take readers out of the book before plunging back into the story. This might have made more sense if this were a dark tale of a troubled child like Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003) for instance, but here seems peculiarly out-of-place. This authorial interjection, providing a doleful and detached perspective on Harri’s almost blissful ignorance (and there is a lot of religious imagery on display in this work) ultimately feels too disruptive in a work that is already having to work hard to juggle a crime plot with a mass of sociological detail and sustain Harri’s charming and distinctive voice.
So, not an unqualified success then, but Harri is a truly great character, realised with subtlety, grace and humour – and the ending, while cruel, is extremely well-judged and feels absolutely, horribly, right.
Official website: www.pigeonenglish.co.uk/