Pigeon English

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As soon as Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English was pulled out of the bag at the Manchester Book Club’s May meeting, I leapt upon it protectively, inwardly praying that we could vote for this book, which I have been dying to read for oh so long. Although I know I really do need to relax, I can’t help but feel personally responsible when the book club go through a bad couple of choices or have a couple of meets where, despite lashings of beer and cake, we struggle to find anything to talk about, although, as any avid reader will know this often can’t be helped. In short, there is no miracle recipe for a good debate, however, I voted for Pigeon English not only because I wanted to read it, but because after the rave reviews I felt this could be a strong contender for our next ‘Best Book of the Year’. Happily my instincts served me well!

Harrison Okupu is an eleven year old boy; a Ghanaian immigrant living with his mother and older sister on the Dell Farm Estate in London where the recent murder of a local teenager has rocked his childhood bubble. To combat the nasties lurking in the shadows, Harrison and his friend Dean embark on an elaborate detective game to catch the killer, often bringing them far closer to their sinister reality than the unwitting reader can quite handle…

Stephen Kelman writes his rough estate well and Pigeon English was originally imagined up out of his experiences growing up in places very much like the Dell Farm Estate. The element of this book, however, that is absolutely astounding is Kelman’s utterly convincing, often hilarious, child narrator. Harrison is a good boy, battling to do the right thing despite his limitations and despite the baddies who lurk around the neighbourhood and often seem to have him right within their grasp. However, these bad boys are barely adults themselves, children who, for lack of education or chance, allow themselves to be dragged down into a quagmire of drugs and fighting…

9781408828205Harrison may have fun playing detectives with his plastic binoculars and sellotape for fingerprints, but this is no game, and that is precisely where the fear and tragedy lies. An eleven year old’s world view is a fascinating thing, all-knowing yet really knowing nothing at all. The peripheral darkness and danger that the boy simply couldn’t begin to understands heightens the tension and, for adult readers, turns this novel into something of sheer brilliance.

The group were lucky enough to be invited to review Pigeon English and talk a little about ourselves as part of Totally4Women‘s book club of the month. Not only did this get me actively thinking about a) how successful a read this turned out to be (i.e. both an enjoyable book and lively debate) but also b) about how much I really do gain, both socially and, dare I say it, intellectually from being able to share at least one book a month in great depth with a group of like-minded people. Where many found the (thankfully) rare passages where a local pigeon offers us its philosophical musings on Harrison’s life a little pretentious and at odds with the main narrative, one book grouper actually offered her experience and knowledge of Ghanaian beliefs and customs that made us all appreciate its presence in the novel that little bit more…

Kelman has really set the bar very high for himself with this masterful début novel. It is heartwarming yet utterly devastating. Even the most stoic book groupers shed a few tears over Harrison’s tale and, if you don’t, I shall buy you a pint.

Although Pigeon English is a joy to read for everyone, Harrison’s tale of trouble and strife on a rough estate has inspired The National Literacy Trust (in partnership with the Booker Prize Foundation) to use it to encourage prisoners to read and turn their lives around. Check out the great work they’re doing here

Pigeon by Richard Grandmorin via Flickr

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