26 September 2011

Review 41: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (Man Booker Shortlist)

Pigeon English is the story of Harri, a Ghanian boy who has recently moved to London with his mother and older sister Lydia. They have left behind his father, grandmother and baby sister Agnes as they couldn't afford the plane tickets in one go. They live in a flat in a neglected tower block in inner city London and the book opens with the stabbing of a local boy. People being 'chooked' is part of normal life and they play 'suicide bomber' in the playground. Kelman was inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor and the parrallels are clear throughout.

The boys killer is unknown and Harri and his friend Dean decide they are going to track the killer down so they can earn the police reward and buy a new bike. Their inept attempts at working it out include a stake out of a fast food van and trying to collect fingerprints using sellotape.

Harri is also still trying to work out how thing go in London, trying to fit in at school, at church with his devout mother and how to stay on the right side of the Dell Farm Crew. Harri is tested by being invited to take part on some of their 'missions' and to begin with he is naively unaware of the darker side of what they do and sees it as some some of advanced playground game. His realisation that it is more than running and following when he realises one of their mugging targets is an old man from his church.

The contrast of Harri's innocence with the reality of what is going on around him is central to the novel and Kelman manages to walk the line between sentimentality and realism. As he falls for a fellow Year 7,  Poppy Morgan, we see Harri's attitude towards her contrasted with the way that his sister is treated by men and the way Lydia's friend coarsely attempt to teach Harri about girls Harri's voice is very appealing. His quirks of speech as he melds Ghanian and London slang is both entertaining and touching. Harri is very charming which makes the events around him all the more upsetting as you see this lovely little boy in the middle of it and as the novel builds to its climax which right at the end the sense of dread is ominous and affecting.

The only real misstep for me was the inclusion of a pigeon who occasionally weigh in at the start of chapters. Harri's attachment to a pigeon is a inoffensive touch but the inclusion of the pigeons 'thoughts' jars with the fact that the rest of the novel is grounded in reality. Its not included enough to find its feet and feels somewhat random as a result.

In terms of the Booker prize, it's so different from The Sense of an Ending and very difficult to compare, something is going to be a problem throughout my reading of the whole shortlist I imagine. All in all I think I prefer it to Barnes as it affected me more emotionally and feels less studied and more unique.
This is a wonderful and important novel. Harri is an endlessly appealing narrator and Kelman skilfully weaves him into a cruel and harsh environment to create a novel that is both uplifting and crushing.

1 comment:

  1. I really loved this book! I read it a while back before it was nominated for the Man Booker.
    It was so different to anything I've read before, which is always a good thing!
    What a great review :)