Friday, September 9, 2011

*Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
263 pp

Pigeon English is Stephen Kelman's first novel. It has had an interesting journey, moving from potential obscurity in a publisher's slushpile to the Booker Prize shortlist. Although the story is set in London, the issues it describes are just as relevant in major cities here in the US or anywhere else.  It is structured so that each section pertains to a month in a young Ghanian immigrant boy's life in a London housing project.

The story is told through the eyes and voice of Harrison (Harri) Opuku, eleven years old. Harrison is just eleven; he came to the UK from Ghana with his mother and his older sister Lydia. The family was able to get a council flat in an poor area of London, but Harrison's father and his baby sister Agnes had to stay behind in Ghana until there's money enough to bring them out. The story begins just after another boy (a "half-friend" of Harrison's) has been stabbed to death. Harrison and his friend Dean decide that the police are never going to solve this crime so they take it upon themselves to do so.  Dean is a huge fan of CSI, and knows all of the things the two will need to do: surveillance, gathering fingerprints on tape, getting DNA, and watching potential suspects for any signs of guilt. They plan to take the reward money and buy new bicycles.  This bit of child's-play detective work is really the frame for the novel rather than the real story.

Harri may be eleven, but he's different from the other kids.  Not because he's from Ghana (there are a number of immigrant families in the complex), but because of his innocence.  He tries very hard to fit into his new life, taking the time to memorize the "rules," over one hundred of them, but for the most part they're general kid-type rules for fitting in, and he forgets a lot of them:
"No running on the stairs
No singing in class...
Jumping in the puddle means you're a retard
Going around the puddle means you're a girl
The first one to answer the question loves the teacher...
The library stairs are safe...
He has a crush on a girl at school, paints his tennis shoes to look like Adidas, likes stuff kids his age normally like, is fascinated with Haribo gummy candies, and in general is a typical boy. He is friendly with everyone, and when the Dell Farm Crew gives him an opportunity to join with them he's tempted, even taking but failing their entry tests.

While Harri is offering his often-delightfully innocent viewpoints throughout the book, things are going on all around him that he misses. He sees and hears things that even at his age should make him put two and two together and come out with four, but doesn't get it.  How ironic, if you think about this boy is playing at being a detective, but has no clue how to put all of the facts together once he has them all within his grasp. It's not that he's dense; he's an intelligent kid, but he's been sheltered. Harri's brief memories of life in Ghana reveal that he came from a place where the extended family and others in the community were a part of his upbringing. Moving to London, that support system's been removed, and his mom and sister try to shield him from the negative realities of living there. They get it:  mom has succumbed to some shady dealings, his sister is peripherally involved in what's going on with the Crew, and his Aunt Sonia's story speaks for itself -- but  their attempts at protecting him, along with his natural optimism and quirky views on life, sadly leave him without the resources he needs to adjust and conform. 

I liked this book, and with a few exceptions, found Harri's voice to be pretty consistent throughout. I also found this story to be convincing and once I started it, couldn't put it down.  So many people have taken an ardent dislike to this novel, mostly to do with the issue of the child narrator.  That didn't bother me, even though sometimes it got too cutesy and sometimes wore a bit thin;  my beef is with the pigeon.  I can sort of get where Kelman is coming from, but it just didn't work for me. A pigeon as a spokesperson was just too much, dropping the credibility factor a point or two.  But when all is said and done, if you can get past the annoying bits, there's a good story in here.

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