Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman: Book Review

Pigeon English is written by Stephen Kelman. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011. 

“Grown-ups love sad news, it gives them something special to pray for. That’s why the news is always sad.”

Pigeon English is narrated by Harri, an eleven-year-old boy. And, this is the beauty of this book; you understand the world in his language and understanding, completely through his eyes. The innocence of drawing lines on a shoe bought from a charity store to make it look like ‘Adidas’ just takes your heart away. Harri charms his way through, collecting clues to solve a murder mystery with binoculars and cello tapes to get fingerprints. Harri is a blend of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from Ghana and giving us the perspective on life for people from an economically disadvantaged section in London. 

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Harrison Opoku aka Harri has come with his mother and elder sister, Lydia from Ghana to live in London. While his father, grandma Ama and younger sister, Agnes are left behind, probably waiting for adequate money and visa arrangement for the entire family to migrate. Harri’s mother works at assisting childbirths occupying her day and night. This is the reason why Harri can run around, befriend notorious boys and go on his little adventures (or rather misadventures). 

So, what is the pigeon doing (from the book title)? The Pigeon is kind of a guardian angel. And, occasionally dons the hat of a narrator who provides the readers with an adult perspective on the situation. The Opoku family lives on the ninth floor of a fourteen storied building in a block of flats on an inner-city housing estate. Harri has a pigeon visiting him on the balcony. He tries to feed the pigeon, befriend him, calling him his special pigeon. In his imaginative world, the pigeon has grown to be his friend and Harri protects him.

A story begins with a boy being murdered outside Chicken Joe’s. During the police examination, nobody comes up as a witness. Now Harri and his friend Dean decide to investigate the murder completely on their own. To the little Harri, all killers have the same attributes across, someone with piggy little eyes, gold teeth, red eyes, smoking cigarettes, spitting and spiderwebs on their neck. And, detectives work in pairs, the reason why Harri is teemed with Dean. They feel the local police lack the acumen to catch the culprit. The case is of CSI level and they have not been summoned. Another conjecture according to Harri is to put up prize money to catch the criminal. And, when Lydia questions about how the police department would have the funds, Harri promptly replies,

The Queen. She’s got plenty of money. She doesn’t even need it all, she’s old.

Harri is the fastest runner in year 7, even with the shoes bought from the charity store, competing with boys wearing Nike and Adidas. His mother wants him to be a good boy at school. She has a lot to deal with, the distance with her husband and the younger child in addition to handling Julius for presumably transacting her illegal visa. We get a glimpse of Aunt Sonia who is in an abusive relationship with Julius living in America and visits the Opoku family with gifts. She burns her fingers at the stove to get rid of fingerprints. So if police catch her, she is not identified and cannot be sent back. Harri thinks Aunt Sonia has never done anything wrong, she only loves to travel to different places but some countries don’t allow if ‘you’re black’.

At school, there is a notorious gang of boys in Year 11. “They’re called the Dell Farm Crew after Dell Farm Estate. X-Fire is the leader because he’s best at basketball and fighting.” And, there is a rival gang – Lewsey Hill Crew. These areas have been earmarked and the other gang members are barred from entry. Harri understands that there has been a history of violence between the two gangs. Yet, he is also fascinated to be their team member.  

The book has small illustrations too, so you get the visual treat packaged with the humorous interpretation by Harri. For instance, the sign ‘to-turn-off-mobiles’ is probably aimed at protecting the teacher’s robotic heads meddling with electronic waves.

The author has powerfully embedded our prejudices in exploring Harri’s world. When presenting a boy in the class, we know, “Altaf is very quiet. Nobody really knows him. You’re not supposed to talk to Somalis because they’re pirates.” A large of number of characters from this age group are understood, crafted with their nuances at studies, games, infatuations and sexual explorations.

It is endearing how Harri’s character is built. His belief like hell is a place down below volcanoes and the existence of a fire God who would stop throwing fire only with the sacrifice of a virgin. Similarly, the notion of Sky God, Tree God, Sea God, etc lends background to his Ghanaian roots. He doesn’t have a watch but then, 

I don’t have a watch yet, I don’t even need one. The bell tells you where to be and there’s a clock in the classroom. When you’re outside school you don’t need to know the hour, your belly tells you when it’s chop time. You just go home when you’re hungry enough, that way you never forget.

Mr.Frimpong, the eldest member of the Church congregation is attacked by the Dell Farm Crew boys. Harri is also a part of the attack, this being a requisite to enter the gang. But Harri runs away after witnessing the brutality of the attack. The scene is preceded with an observation by Harri on his pigeon carrying a loaf of bread, attacked by two others and snatching a piece from the bird. Harri was angry but he realized that they were only birds, his pigeon could have also shared the piece and the others snatched only because they couldn’t talk. Harri is lucky for Mr.Frimpong had not seen him in the gang.

But now the lines have been crossed. There is animosity on more than one account. Harri has gone far too ahead in putting his nose in investigating the murder.

Harri knows the only place safe for him in the whole world is his home. But is it? Can he and his innocent childhood be saved? As Harri thinks himself to be a man of the house, in the absence of his father, be able to protect his mother and sister. Do we expect a happy reunion or take the family back to Ghana to their bamboo furniture shop?

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet P

3 thoughts on “Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman: Book Review

  1. Pingback: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman: A letter to the book cover #A2Z challenge – Bookishloom

  2. Mysteries make up the majority of my pleasure reading, and I especially like the ones that are presented from an outside-the-box perspective, which seems to be the case. I will look for this next time I'm on a book-buying excursion. 🙂


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