New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
Reviews

Pigeon English

Claire Hobba

Pigeon English
Stephen Kelman
Bloomsbury, 263pp
There was a great deal of hype about Pigeon English, even before it was shortlisted for the Booker. This novel by the previously 'unknown' Stephen Kelman was identified by several publishers as the object of desire and in the end it's said that Kelman's agent netted him a six-figure sum for the book. It is, however, a very mixed bag.
It tells the story of 11-year-old Harri, a Ghanaian immigrant who has recently moved to the Dell Farm Estate in a deprived area of London where attack dogs and knife-wielding  teenagers rule the roost.  The outstanding success of the novel is the voice of Harri, conveying an eager, optimistic boy who sometimes blurs the boundary between his fantasy adventures and real-life dangers. Harri expresses himself vividly through  a wonderful vocabulary and grammatical quirks which combine Ghanaian terms and British teenage slang and because he uses them consistently throughout, the meaning is clear to the reader.   It seems certain that although this is Kelman's first published novel, the Luton-based writer has worked hard to hone his craft, and it is heartening to see a large advance go to somebody who has truly earned it rather than some blousy celebrity, willing to spill the cut-price beans on their tawdry life.
However, it is likely that publishers got excited not just about the engaging voice of the protagonist but about how many boxes this novel ticks. The story is very topical, following the rule of terror by a knife-wielding teen-age gang, The Dell Farm Crew.  Kelman attributes some of the inspiration for Pigeon English to Damilola Taylor's heart-rending story, stabbed to death on a stairway in Peckham.  
The issue of gangster entrepreneurs is also included as Harri's mother lives in fear of the loan shark who also supplied her with her cut-price visa.  There is a theme of violence against women, both in the adult and teen-age worlds.   
Publishers will also have liked the fact that, as the cover blurb says, the style of telling can be likened to two best-selling recent books - Room and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  The fact that Harri engages with the stabbing that takes place at the start of the book through deciding to act as a detective is a plot device also used by the latter novel.
However, the most contentious element in the novel is the wretched pigeon itself.  Yes, there really is a pigeon in Pigeon English, and a mystical pigeon at that.  I can imagine that somebody, on reading an early version of  Kelman's story may have said, 'Stephen, this is too depressing.  You must give the characters some form of hope.' And the result was the pigeon.
Kelman, who has clearly researched Ghanaian culture and language will have discovered that his characters are likely to be practising Christians. Indeed, Harri's family are described as attending church and Harri's mother is portrayed as a 'God-fearing' woman in the best sense of the word. It may very well have been natural to a boy such as Harri to pray to God for safety, to wear a crucifix to give him protection, to contemplate having a guardian angel and an afterlife in a Christian Heaven. However, although Kelman has Harri refer authentically to certain Ghanaian myths and to Western comic-book heroes, he barely mentions the Christian framework on which his family's life would have been founded.
Instead, Harri adopts a guardian pigeon. The pigeon gets its own speeches which, in contrast to Harri's own voice, are very pompous and philosophical. This oddity raises an obvious question: Why, in this novel, didn't Harri resort to praying to his God when he needed reassurance and protection? I can only think that, alongside all the boxes that needed to be ticked, this was a box that needed to be 'un-ticked' in order to win the approval of the publishers. To show Christianity in anything other than a sceptical and critical light is deeply unfashionable these days, so to suggest that it may have been the well-spring for the joie de vivre of this attractive young character is not acceptable.
In fact, Richard Taylor, the father of Damilola has been recorded as addressing black churches with the words, 'There are too many mindless deaths of young people taking place in our society, and organizations like the church need to stand up and show our young people that there is a better way to live their lives.'
It is a sad indictment that the kind of readers who buy Booker-nominated novels are prepared to shake their heads sadly at knife crime and at violence against women without also being able to countenance the positive effect that the church may have in giving hope and moral bearings to the many inhabitants of the inner cities who attend them.

RPigeon_English.jpg

Stephen Kelman
Bloomsbury, 263pp

There was a great deal of hype about Pigeon English, even before it was shortlisted for the Booker. This novel by the previously 'unknown' Stephen Kelman was identified by several publishers as the object of desire and in the end it's said that Kelman's agent netted him a six-figure sum for the book. It is, however, a very mixed bag.

It tells the story of 11-year-old Harri, a Ghanaian immigrant who has recently moved to the Dell Farm Estate in a deprived area of London where attack dogs and knife-wielding  teenagers rule the roost.  The outstanding success of the novel is the voice of Harri, conveying an eager, optimistic boy who sometimes blurs the boundary between his fantasy adventures and real-life dangers. Harri expresses himself vividly through  a wonderful vocabulary and grammatical quirks which combine Ghanaian terms and British teenage slang and because he uses them consistently throughout, the meaning is clear to the reader.   It seems certain that although this is Kelman's first published novel, the Luton-based writer has worked hard to hone his craft, and it is heartening to see a large advance go to somebody who has truly earned it rather than some blousy celebrity, willing to spill the cut-price beans on their tawdry life.

However, it is likely that publishers got excited not just about the engaging voice of the protagonist but about how many boxes this novel ticks. The story is very topical, following the rule of terror by a knife-wielding teen-age gang, The Dell Farm Crew.  Kelman attributes some of the inspiration for Pigeon English to Damilola Taylor's heart-rending story, stabbed to death on a stairway in Peckham.  

The issue of gangster entrepreneurs is also included as Harri's mother lives in fear of the loan shark who also supplied her with her cut-price visa.  There is a theme of violence against women, both in the adult and teen-age worlds.   

Publishers will also have liked the fact that, as the cover blurb says, the style of telling can be likened to two best-selling recent books - Room and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  The fact that Harri engages with the stabbing that takes place at the start of the book through deciding to act as a detective is a plot device also used by the latter novel.

However, the most contentious element in the novel is the wretched pigeon itself.  Yes, there really is a pigeon in Pigeon English, and a mystical pigeon at that.  I can imagine that somebody, on reading an early version of  Kelman's story may have said, 'Stephen, this is too depressing.  You must give the characters some form of hope.' And the result was the pigeon.

Kelman, who has clearly researched Ghanaian culture and language will have discovered that his characters are likely to be practising Christians. Indeed, Harri's family are described as attending church and Harri's mother is portrayed as a 'God-fearing' woman in the best sense of the word. It may very well have been natural to a boy such as Harri to pray to God for safety, to wear a crucifix to give him protection, to contemplate having a guardian angel and an afterlife in a Christian Heaven. However, although Kelman has Harri refer authentically to certain Ghanaian myths and to Western comic-book heroes, he barely mentions the Christian framework on which his family's life would have been founded.

Instead, Harri adopts a guardian pigeon. The pigeon gets its own speeches which, in contrast to Harri's own voice, are very pompous and philosophical. This oddity raises an obvious question: Why, in this novel, didn't Harri resort to praying to his God when he needed reassurance and protection? I can only think that, alongside all the boxes that needed to be ticked, this was a box that needed to be 'un-ticked' in order to win the approval of the publishers. To show Christianity in anything other than a sceptical and critical light is deeply unfashionable these days, so to suggest that it may have been the well-spring for the joie de vivre of this attractive young character is not acceptable.

In fact, Richard Taylor, the father of Damilola has been recorded as addressing black churches with the words, 'There are too many mindless deaths of young people taking place in our society, and organizations like the church need to stand up and show our young people that there is a better way to live their lives.'

It is a sad indictment that the kind of readers who buy Booker-nominated novels are prepared to shake their heads sadly at knife crime and at violence against women without also being able to countenance the positive effect that the church may have in giving hope and moral bearings to the many inhabitants of the inner cities who attend them.