Pigeon English Hardcover – Mar 12 2011
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Told with humour, despite the gritty subject matter and setting . . . Pigeon English charms its way into some hard places. (Adrian Turpin Financial Times 2011-02-04)
Stephen Kelman’s [first novel] has a powerful story, a pacy plot and engaging characters. It paints a vivid portrait with honesty, sympathy and wit, of a much neglected milieu, and it addresses urgent social questions. It is horrifying, tender and funny. [. . .] Pigeon English will be read by millions. (Lewis Jones Telegraph 2011-03-07)
. . . exceptional . . . Opoku’s plight is both heart-warming and heartbreaking. (Malcolm Jack The List 2011-03-04)
Harrison Opoku, the 11-year-old Ghanaian boy who is the narrator of this very fine coming-of-age novel, may well be about to take his place among other well-loved children in literature. [. . .] To be moved to care this deeply for a fictional character is a rare experience. (Ursula Fuchs Winnipeg Free Press 2011-03-12)
Kelman blends Ghanaian slang such as "Asweh" ("I swear") and "hutious" ("frightening") with familiar London-ese to fresher and funnier effect. [. . .] Pigeon English does an admirable job of revealing the frightened teenage boys behind gang members' tough facades. (Aspden Rachel Guardian 2011-03-13)
Most novels aren’t as imaginative, gut-wrenching and powerful as Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, and this one is Kelman’s first. It’s immediately engaging, and it doesn’t let go. [. . .] Pigeon English is an amazing novel. It’s a window on a world many of us will never experience (thankfully), and it is beautifully and intelligently written. (Candace Fertile Edmonton Journal 2011-03-12)
Kelman has created an endearing character at once foreign yet familiar . . . Pigeon English is a mesmerizing tale of naïveté and discovery that has us rooting on the sidelines, hoping that Harri will triumph. (Gina Roitman Rover Arts 2011-03-13)
Pigeon English convincingly evokes life on the edge as lived by many British children today; the humour, the resilience, the sheer ebullience of its narrator -- a hero for our times -- should ensure the book becomes, deservedly, a classic. (John Harding Daily Mail 2011-03-17)
Filled with energy, humour and compassion, Pigeon English is a gut-wrenchingly sad novel that makes you laugh out loud. (Alex Clark Guardian 2011-03-19)
. . . a very impressive debut . . . (Emily Donaldson Toronto Star 2011-03-25)
. . . an authentic and audacious first novel . . . It will be a while before the buzz about [Kelman] dies down. (Lesley McDowell Scotsman 2011-03-27)
. . . a tour de force . . . Funny and poignant, Pigeon English is fired with an uncontainable spirit, a rare distillate of boyhood optimism and adult wisdom. (Brian D. Johnson Maclean's 2011-03-29)
Kelman has crafted a book that soars. (Mary Jo Anderson Chronicle Herald 2011-04-03)
. . . engaging . . . Kelman's dead-on evocation of the horrors and freedoms of an inner-city childhood deserves attention. (Benjamin Evans Telegraph 2011-04-12)
. . . chilling and charming . . . [Pigeon English is] a coming-of-age tale that feels achingly accurate. (Rebecca Caldwell Globe and Mail 2011-06-01)
A violent and riveting coming of age story, Stephen Kelman's debut novel also contains well-timed moments of comedy, affecting family drama, and just enough hopefulness to dilute the setting's biting flavour of despair. (Brett Joseph Grubisic Vancouver Sun 2011-07-15)
. . . something of a phenomenon . . . (Michael D. Langan Buffalo News 2011-07-17)
[Stephen Kelman] took a real-life knife murder of an immigrant boy a decade ago as his starting point, but the youth he created is distinctly and wonderfully his own. (Jim Higgins Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 2011-07-29)
. . . riveting . . . (Yvonne Zipp Christian Science Monitor 2011-08-05)
... a topical novel with a great narrative voice ... the ending will crush you. (Quentin Mills-Fenn Uptown Winnipeg 2011-11-17)
Few writers nail a voice as well as Stephen Kelman does ... (Julienne Isaacs Geez Magazine 2012-03-01)
From the Inside Flap
Advise yourself! It's time to jump into "Pigeon English" and experience the jubilant, infectious voice of Harrison Opuku. See why he is bo-styles. How being the fastest runner in Year 7 makes him dope-fine. And why, when a hutious criminal feels Harri closing in on him, it just feels crazy. You'll want this book to last donkey hours.
Harri begins his story when he finds himself facing the body of one of his classmates, a boy known for his crazy basketball skills, a boy who seems to have been murdered for his dinner. The police have no leads, so Harri and his best friend launch into action. Armed with camouflage binoculars and detective techniques absorbed from television, they gather evidence -- fingerprints lifted from windows with sellotape, a wallet stained with blood -- and lay traps to flush out the murderer.
Recently emigrated from Ghana to London and its enormous housing projects, Harri is awed by the city. Filled with curiosity and ebullience -- obsessed with gummy candy, a friend to everyone he meets (even the pigeon that visits his balcony) -- Harri is still tempted by the glamour and power of the gangs running his neighborhood. His world will be forever altered by the Dell Farm Crew.
And your world will be forever altered by the discovery of the searing, endearing, and virtuosic writing of Stephen Kelman, who, in the great tradition of "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," takes us deeply and fully into one boy's life.
Top Customer Reviews
This book does evoke the atmosphere and the location very well though - so if you can overlook the narrative weakness you might find this one to be a keeper.
Harri, along with his sister and mother, has recently moved from Ghana to an impoverished inner city highrise project. Harri makes a convincing eleven year old narrator, both spirited and good -hearted, in contrast to the tragedy that surround shim in the form of poverty, street gangs, prostitution and gangs.
Harri finds himself equally repelled and fascinated by the crime that surrounds him as he tries to navigate his new life.
When a boy is " chooked" or stabbed dead while Harri looks on from a distance, he begins his own murder investigation, using sellotape to gather finger prints , among other methods of investigation.
I was deeply touched by and saddened by many elements of this story , knowing that much of what is described is a reality for impoverished inner city dwellers. The book gave me a great deal of insight into the recent riots in the UK.
A powerful and heartbreaking novel.
Very much recommended
The title is something of a play on words referring both to the mixed Ghanaian and South London pidgin of the narrator (words and phrases like 'asweh', 'hutious' and 'advise yourself' abound) and because of his fascination with a wild pigeon who one day flew into their ninth floor flat and from then one believes is watching over him ready to poop on anyone who threatens him. In some of the most clawing and hackneyed passages we are treated the philosophical musings of the pigeon itself.
Reading the booker prize novels has taught me something about myself. Starting with Room last year and now Pigeon English I have learnt that I cannot stand to read narration written from the perspective of a child simply because I believe that a narrative is far too important to be left to such an undeveloped mindset. Harri's thought-processes are so frenetic and changeable one would imagine it giving the novel a certain pace but instead it is just becomes tiring.
Partly inspired by the stabbing of the Nigerian schoolboy Damiola Taylor in 2000 the book taps in on the prevalence of gang culture and knife crime in the council estates of London. Because it is one of few if any novels that attempts to deal with this issue, it is a novel that will do very well whether or not it is artistically merited. It wont be too long before this graces the syllabuses of the United Kingdom and the BBC have already commissioned an adaptation. I also expect it to make it through to the shortlist but sadly I don't think it merits it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Not to point fingers, but this is everything that `Little Bee' should have been.
Stephen Kelman's debut novel certainly has wet my appetite for more to come, considering that `Pigeon English' had me glued from page one and kept me completely enthralled until the poignant and stunningly tragic conclusion. I cannot wait for him to deliver something of equal ferocity in the form of a sophomore novel. He is one that I am anxious to see what else he has in store; for he certainly has the talent to deliver.
`Pigeon English' tells the story of Harri, a young and naïve boy who is searching for some normalcy in his new environment. Coming to London in hopes of a better life, Harri is in a family divided as he awaits the arrival of his youngest sister and his father from their native Ghana. Harri tries to acquaint himself with his new life, but everything is so different, and when a young boy winds up murdered, Harri finds himself living out a real life horror show. Taking it upon himself to solve the murder, Harri pushes buttons and makes astute observations that betray his innocence and threaten his very life.
But this is all about Kelman, and his ability to create something so fresh with a prose ripe with clichéd opportunities. Instead of succumbing to a predictable thriller-type plot, Kelman makes the focal point of his novel Harri himself. Far more interesting than uncovering the truth behind the `dead boys' murder; `Pigeon English' takes the time to fully develop Harri Opuko, making him three dimensional and relatable. When he questions things we take for granted we are taken to a place of innocence that we've long since left behind, and it is Harri's astute observations of life and the people that infect it that really make this novel so unforgettable. His poignancy is never overshadowed by his naivety, and visa-versa. Harri is one of the more memorable protagonists of modern literature, and if all were right in this world he would be regarded as such by many for years to come.
`Pigeon English' takes the reader on a heartwarming and eventually heartbreaking journey through the eyes of a young boy out of his element yet completely in our hearts. It will make you smile, it will make you squirm and it will make you cry; sometimes simultaneously.
Personally, while I tend to prefer plot-driven fiction, I can live with minimal or no plot if there is something to connect with. And in this book, 11-year-old Harrison (aka "Harri") Opoku is such a lovable, naive, child that I couldn't help but connect with his irrepressible spirit. Like Harri, moved from Africa to an alien first-world country at around age 10-11, and found it to be a similarly bewildering and hostile place. Others may find Harri to be too precious or unbelievably innocent, but I fell for him hook, line, and sinker. And to be fair, the book is not entirely plotless, there is a murder mystery to propel things, along with a minor romantic subplot.
I tend to really like writing that has a distinctive sound, from the thick Scots of Irvine Welsh's work to the Edwardian slang of P.G. Wodehouse to the Nadsat Anthony Burgess concocted for A Clockwork Orange. I found the Ghanaian-inflected English that peppers the book's description and dialogue (my favorite is the admonishment "advise yourself!") to be neither overwhelming, nor labored. It appears in just the right dosages and just the right times, and carries enough nuance to remind the reader of Harri's outsider status.
I will admit that much as I liked this book, that the bits involving the pigeon just didn't work at all for me. About a third of the way in I just starting skipping the pigeon's narrative portions (which is easily done as they appear in italics). It feels like a strained gimmick, and the only justification I can think of is that the author was attempting to invoke the classic English novel A Kestrel for a Knave.
Ultimately, the book fits securely into that mode of storytelling that uses immigrant eyes and voices to reveal the flaws of their host society. In that sense, it functions as effective critique of contemporary Britain, one clearly drawn from the author's own background and experiences. Some of these themes and setting are similar to Peter Akinti's recent book Forest Gate, albeit with a very different tone. I am not at all surprised to see that the BBC has commissioned a script from the book and a screen adaptation appears likely.
Still, this isn't a plot-driven novel; it's a chronicle of a short period in a boy's life. When he isn't detecting, Harri talks to his friends about superheroes, goes to school (he's delighted to learn that a lemon can be made into a battery), fights with his sister Lydia (who is keeping a mysterious secret of her own), admires his platonic girlfriend Poppy, and runs away from bullies (some of whom he provokes because he knows he can outrun them). Occasionally Harri thinks about his life in Ghana, where his father and grandmother still live, keeping in touch by telephone. Now and then he contemplates pigeons.
Harri loves pigeons. He believes he's communicating with a special pigeon friend, although he's uncertain whether these silent conversations are real or imagined. From time to time we're treated to a philosophical pigeon's-eye-view of the world. I confess to being a bit puzzled by those passages. Are we really hearing the thoughts of a numinous pigeon who is watching over Harri, or are we hearing Harri's thoughts as he imagines the pigeon's thoughts? The pigeon's voice is different from Harri's, more mature and less slangy, suggesting that Harri does indeed have a guardian pigeon. Either way, the pigeon passages don't fit in with, and in fact detract from, the rest of the story.
Fortunately, most of the novel is in Harri's voice -- a voice that struck me as authentic, although I admit I don't know any preteens from Ghana who are being raised in London. It took me awhile to figure out that "asweh" means "I swear" and I had to use Google to learn that "hutious" is Ghanaian slang for "frightening" but those words contribute to Harri's unique style of speaking. Harri loves words; "paradiddle" is one of his favorites. Sometimes he adopts (and misuses) a new favorite word ("orgasm," for instance) without quite understanding its meaning.
Harri is a completely innocent kid -- he knows several words and phrases pertaining to sex but his understanding of them is invariably inaccurate. When his sister's friend teaches him to French kiss (a skill he thinks he may need if he is to cement his relationship with Poppy), Harri is disgusted by the lesson. Harri understands the world with a child's logic; his observations -- the notion, for instance, that eyelashes are basically bug shields -- contribute a good bit of the novel's humor. Despite his desire to be as cool as the gang members who inhabit his neighborhood, Harri is disturbed by the crime and violence that surrounds him. Harri's innocence in a corrupt world is part of the book's charm.
The mystical pigeon notwithstanding, I enjoyed this quirky, offbeat novel. It captures the universal experience of childhood from an immigrant's perspective. That perspective is important; Stephen Kelman seems to be saying that life might be awful in Ghana but there's no guarantee it will be any better in London. Some readers won't like the ending. I'm not sure I liked it but I think it's honest. More than that I can't say without saying too much.
The novel opens with the stabbing death of a schoolboy on a sidewalk near Harri's flat. Harri does not know the boy well, as he is older and goes to another school, but he and his friends vow to find out who murdered him. Inspired by the American television show CSI, the boys use their fledging detective skills to spy on potential suspects and gather fingerprints and other specimens from the crime scene. Harri is generally well liked by his classmates, as he is a fast runner and a good fighter, and he eagerly participates in typical boyhood pranks and games. His home life is a bit dull, as his older sister finds him to be a bother, and he befriends a pigeon who serves as a companion, confidant, and guardian angel.
As the story progresses, the identity of the boy's killer is obvious to the reader, but not to Harri, whose investigation intensifies as he gathers more clues and puts himself in danger.
Pigeon English was written in honor of Damilola Taylor, a 10 year old Nigerian boy who was murdered in 2000 in the south London neighborhood of Peckham, along with other children in the UK who experience fear and violence on a daily basis, and is also based on the author's own childhood experiences and people he encountered as a child and young adult. Harrison's voice and character are maddening, lovable, and ultimately unforgettable, and this is one of the better coming of age stories that I've read. The novel's main flaw is the character of the guardian pigeon, whose comments I found inscrutable and whose presence was unnecessary and distracting, which caused me to knock half a star off of my rating of this otherwise superb novel. It is also a very timely one, given the recent acts of violence in impoverished neighborhoods in south London and elsewhere. I doubt that Pigeon English will win this year's Booker Prize or even make the longlist, but it is a novel that was enjoyable and deserves to be widely read.
The narrator is Harrison Opuku, an eleven-year-old immigrant from Ghana who lives with his mother and sister in the British equivalent of a housing project. Through this child's eyes, Kelman depicts life in an immigrant community in London, where gangs and criminals prey incessantly on the vulnerable, where the Queen might as well be on the moon. Schools and police have little power; the government materializes only sporadically, as an enforcer of the immigration laws. Harri, as he is called, is a funny, imaginative child who fails his gang initiation tests and, then, with his pal, tries to solve the random murder of a child much like himself. There's a pigeon, too (hence the punning title) who carries on a kind of conversation with Harri; the implicit idea is that society feels about immigrants the way it feels about pigeons.
It's difficult to tell a story through the voice of a child, although there are some striking successes: Emma Donoghue in "Room" and, even more brilliantly, David Mitchell in "Black Swan Green." Pigeon English is not of this caliber. There isn't enough story, for one thing, to carry more than 250 pages of urban observations, magical thinking, and dialect. The talking pigeon feels like the artistic contrivance that it is. After a while, Harrison's coming and goings are repetitious, and his every thought--or so it seems--slows the story's momentum to a crawl. Kelman has great powers of observation, and his rendering of Harri's world seems true. Oh for a different form---interlinked short stories would have perhaps been more compelling.