Booker Books: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

This year, for reasons not entirely clear even to myself, I’ve decided to read and review (well, react to) the six books shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize (in order of what we have the most stock of). I read a varied lot of books, from Maggie O’Farrell to J. R. Ward to China Miéville to Louise Penny. I’m coming into the shortlisted books entirely blind – as in, I’ve not read any of these authors before, and I don’t know anything about the books either (not even what it says on the back!). I like to think that this means I have a completely fresh take on all of them. 🙂

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Publisher’s book description:

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on an inner-city housing estate. The second best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers – the Adidas stripes drawn on with marker pen – blissfully unaware of the very real threat all around him. With equal fascination for the local gang – the Dell Farm Crew – and the pigeon who visits his balcony, Harri absorbs the many strange elements of his new life in England: watching, listening, and learning the tricks of urban survival. But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly endangers the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to try and keep them safe. A story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality, Pigeon English is a spellbinding portrayal of a boy balancing on the edge of manhood and of the forces around him that try to shape the way he falls.

Here is the Guardian‘s review.

My take:

I was in tears at the end of this book.  I sat on the balcony and had myself a good cry – because the book was finished.  I had come to love Harri, the narrator, that much.

Harri (Harrison in full) is a young boy (about eleven or so) from Ghana who has recently moved to a very nasty part of London with his mother and sister (his father and grandmother and younger sister are to join them as soon as they have the money for plane tickets).  The book starts with Harri and his friend Jordan standing outside Chicken Joe’s, looking at the pool of blood where a boy from the neighborhood has been stabbed to death.  This is what the boys say:

Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’

Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’

Jordan: ‘One quid then.’

This is the book in a nutshell, to me.  Harri, who witnesses horrible situations and dangerous people, but who is, at the same time, a young kid that finds that life – the world – is one magnificent, marvelous, endless, wondrous game, to be fully explored. He and his other friend Dean decide to investigate the killing by gathering fingerprints with sticky tape and staking out the neighborhood with the help of Harri’s dinky binoculars and more of those types of romantically optimistic and totally unrealistic schemes.  And yet, and yet…

I’m lucky enough to be the mother of a daughter around Harri’s age, and I can tell you that the flitting from one subject to another is entirely realistic.  So is the skipping from something serious to something silly, almost in one breath – for example, a friend of Harri’s buries guns for the local gang in backyards (as a kind of initiation), and when Harri hears of this, he immediately imagines a gun tree, with little baby guns on the branches.  It’s this glorious, silly instantaneous imagination that made me fall in love with Harri, and made me fear for him when the Dell Farm Crew would be walking past, or Uncle Julius, even if Harri was obviously not worried.

Another part of the book that I relished was the language Harri and his family use.  “Gowayou!” or “Advise yourself!” are terms that have crept into my own conversations.

The only jarring note in the book was the voice of the pigeon Harri tries to befriend.  Every now and again he would crop up and dispense wisdom in italics, and although he’s absolutely necessary to the story, these short talks felt a little odd.

Pigeon English is Stephen Kelman’s first novel.  I think it’s obvious that I loved it.  🙂  Three more to go, and so far this is the one that I connected to the most.  Will it win?  I’m not sure; it might be too “loud” to win a Booker.  And that pigeon bothered me, but, boy, did Kelman ever manage to paint a picture of a horrible place between the lines of an exuberant and endearing boy’s chatter.  Teachers, if you’re reading, consider this book for your classrooms!

Previous Booker Books: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.

Next up: Snowdrops by A. D. Miller.

By Sophie.