Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Lying in front of Harrison Opuku is a body, the body of one of his classmates, a boy known for his crazy basketball skills, who seems to have been murdered for his dinner.

Armed with a pair of camouflage binoculars and detective techniques absorbed from television shows like CSI, Harri and his best friend, Dean, plot to bring the perpetrator to justice. They gather evidence—fingerprints lifted from windows with tape, a wallet stained with blood—and lay traps to flush out the murderer. But nothing can prepare them for what happens when a criminal feels you closing in on him.

Recently emigrated from Ghana with his sister and mother to London’s enormous housing projects, Harri is pure curiosity and ebullience—obsessed with gummy candy, a friend to the pigeon who visits his balcony, quite possibly the fastest runner in his school, and clearly also fast on the trail of a murderer.

Told in Harri's infectious voice and multicultural slang, Pigeon English follows in the tradition of our great novels of friendship and adventure, as Harri finds wonder, mystery, and danger in his new, ever-expanding world.

The first thing that you need to know if you are intending to read this book is that it is properly hutious. Don't know what that means? I will get to it shortly.

Harrison Opuku has recently immigrated to the UK from Ghana, along with his mother and two sisters, Lydia and Agnes. His father and other relatives have remained in Ghana with hopes of joining them soon. The family lives in one of the tower blocks that form part of the London suburban landscape. The area is rough with violence, gangs and danger forming part of the everyday landscape.

The book opens when Harrison and his friends are standing around looking at the body of one of his acquaintances. The boy appears to have been killed for his dinner. With the gang culture that is prevalent the Police seem powerless to come up with a breakthrough in the investigation to find out why the boy died, and who killed him. When it seems apparent to Harrison that there will be no answers, he decides to try to investigate the murder, along with his friend Dean.

Harrison is an interesting character, alternatively innocent and hard edged, awed by the life that he is now living in London, but also reminiscing about is life back in Ghana, worried about his sisters and mother especially seeing as he is now the man of the house, yet needling his older sister Lydia constantly, on the verge of sexual activity and yet happy to just hold hands with his girlfriend Poppy.

Sometimes the juxtaposition between the two levels of extreme was startling, but I have no doubt that that was a deliberate choice by the author. For example, early in the book in one paragraph Harrison is telling us about the playground where sometimes the kids swap football stickers and sweets, and a short five or so paragraphs later, he is being shown the correct way to 'chook' (knife) someone by some of the members of the Dell Farm Crew. A few more paragraphs and Harrison is talking about his love for all the different types of Haribo lollies.

Many of the people that Harrison comes in contact with are the marginalised in society - elderly, disabled, immigrant, drunken - and yet he does find some fragile sense of community with these people. In a way he has been searching for belonging anywhere he could find it, even if that means becoming part of the Dell Farm Crew. The alternative to belonging to DFC though is to be enemies to them, and that is a dangerous place to find yourself.

As Harrison and his friend Dean continue to investigate the murder they find themselves coming up against the code of silence which dominates the gangs, and by asking the wrong questions, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they bring attention to themselves in ways that may have consequences far greater than anyone can imagine.

There is one other 'character" in the book whose presence grows as the story progresses and that is a pigeon.. As I was reading the book I was puzzled by the choice that the author made, but looking back on it from a distance of a couple of weeks I suspect that the use of this additional perspective was to provide a foreshadowing point of view, but also to reiterate the childishness of Harrison as the book speeds to it's conclusion.

When the author talked about the tower block that Harrison lived in, I was taken back to the time when I lived in one of those towers. We lived in one in Sheffield for a couple of years until I had my son and we were moved out because the Council didn't allow young children to live in the higher levels of the tower. I was lucky to live on a very quiet floor of the tower. There was an old lady who had lived in her flat for nearly 30 years who lived opposite us, and the flat next to us was quite often empty. I do remember getting out of the lift on the wrong floor and being terrified because just one floor below us there was graffiti and broken windows on the landing.You had to be careful.

There were times when I completely related to the Harrison and his family constantly checking to ensure that the door was locked, and to try not to look out the peephole when you heard unexpected noise. I learnt that the hard way when I was at home by myself one night and the police broke the door in next door at 2am and suddenly I had them knocking on my door too. The author did a great job of reminding me of living in that environment of constant awareness of what was happening around you. It wasn't always fear, but I guess I was constantly aware that something could happen, even if it didn't.

At the very beginning I mentioned that this book was hutious, which is as far as I can tell is a Ghanaian slang term for "frightening". Not only are the events portrayed hutious to our main characters, but as a reader you are taken into a world where just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or not being accepted by a particular group of people, can lead to danger every days. Sometimes that danger is slight, but other times, it is much greater.

There is charm in the language, there is a relatively good portrayal of events from the perspective of a young boy, but please don't expect this to be a light and fluffy read, for it is something completely different altogether from that.  Weeks after finishing this novel though, I found myself contemplating the events portrayed in the book in far more than a 'I really liked that book' kind of way. It is a rare book that does that to me. The strange thing about that for me is that this is despite the fact that I didn't totally connect with the world or the characters, even though I did have my experiences to draw upon.

Thanks to Netgalley for the e-ARC of this novel.


  1. I really liked this review, and reading about this book reminded me of Forest Gate by Peter Akinti, which seemed to have a lot of the same elements. It was also a very frightening book, and one that I haven't been able to forget, even though I read it almost two years ago. I would really like to read this one as well. It would be interesting to compare the two. Very nice review, by the way!

  2. Yikes now I just wonder why the cops broke down the door next to yours

  3. I haven't heard of this one, but everything about it sounds wonderful! The synopsis doesn't do enough justice to the book, I think! I am going to look for it!