Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman House of Anansi Press
In his auspicious debut novel, Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman catches us unawares, drawing us into the chaotic and compelling world of Harrison Opoku. Eleven year old Harri has emigrated from Ghana with his mother and older sister to the mean streets of East London, a neighborhood that has been grinding down immigrants for hundreds of years.
Stephen Kelman, an unemployed 33-year-old, sent his manuscript on spec to a few agents more in hope than expectation. He quickly found one and this book became the subject of a bidding war between twelve of the UK's top publishers.
It’s clear why. In Harri, Kelman has created an endearing character at once foreign yet familiar. Written in the first person, we experience Harri’s life through his own eyes and words thanks to Kelman’s use of highly inventive language. In the beginning, however, it helps to sound out some of the words while others can only be defined with the help of a Ghanaian-English dictionary. “Asweh, he’s hutious.” (Translation: I swear, he’s frightening.)
As all immigrants do, the truncated Opoku family (Harri’s dad, baby sister and grandmother are expected to follow someday) have come to a new world seeking a better life. What they find, however, is the same Old World order – bullies, betrayal and brutality – dressed in the guise of something better. It is a world where Harri’s aunt burns her fingertips so if “…the police catch her they can’t send her away.”
In this madness, Harri’s church-going, hard-working mother struggles to earn money as a midwife and keep her brood protected in any way she can while saving for the day the family is reunited.
There is an irrepressible joy in Harri, on the cusp of becoming a good man but still young enough to be oblivious to how perilous is his world, something his older sister has already discovered. Every corner turned presents a quandary for Harri in his new home as he races between danger and safety. Although the second fastest boy in Year 7, Harri can’t always outrun his reality; a friend can turn foe in the blink of a bird’s eye.
Harri welcomes a pigeon onto his balcony and into his heart. The pigeon is also Harri’s somewhat inept guardian angel who does what he can to protect his charge. But both he and Harri are plagued by bullies - the pigeon by vicious magpies and Harri by the Dell Farm Crew led by the brutal X-Fire - each gang bent on beating them into submission.
As the book’s begins a school boy who Harri much admired for his basketball skills is dead, apparently killed for his lunch. Harri and his friend Dean, employing a sleuthing style learned from the CSI series - “They’re the top detectives in America…” undertake to uncover the murderer. Collecting fingerprints, tracking suspects and eventually confronting the killer is elegantly counterbalanced by Harri’s budding romance with Poppy, his classmate.
Harri is a hero for all ages. His heart is filled with dreams of being a superhero and the fastest in Year 7. Flight is his protection.
“Just wanted to get away before the dying caught us,” he tells us.
His curiosity is what drives him to discover although what he finds is harsh reality like when he lifts the carpet looking for money only to find the words ‘Fuck you’ scratched into the wood.
“I don’t think the greeting was for me,” he surmises. “Nobody even knew I was coming.”