Abby's Reviews > Pigeon English

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
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's review
Jan 05, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: work
Read in January, 2010

Pigeon English is a striking but rather self-conscious novel that sets out to explore the plight of a naïve, imaginative Ghanaian boy who finds himself thrust into the brutal and casual violence of an inner London school and estate. The story brings to mind the real life murder of Damilola Taylor and there are some nice touches. What would happen if a young Ghanaian boy; naïve, new to an estate, untutored in the mores and codes of behaviour, decided to investigate a gang stabbing. Alongside this story is the pigeon’s viewpoint of things; the pigeon with whom Harrison bonds and who decides that he is Harrison’s protector. This magical realism element feels under-developed and the finding the killer plot feels similarly thin – the author sort of meanders to the end, rather than focusing in on how Harrison will find the truth and what the consequences will be. In addition, aspects of the story feel contrived and there are unsettling misery memoir undertones that make some of the violent scenes seem gratuitous.

The author depicts the grim intersection of naïve childhood and gang violence in a London sink estate. The central character Harrison, our narrator is a playful and imaginative young boy trying to make sense of this British world; the unfamiliar English and the mores of the school playground and the estate gangs. Harrison’s voice doesn’t always ring authentically true and some of the dialogue, the mix of Black British patois and West African English feels forced and stilted. In addition some of the observations simply don’t ring true for an 11-year-old boy. His naivety feels over-stretched and he is sometimes too knowing. The period is contemporary yet the author would have us believe that Harrison would marvel at an escalator, even if we accept that Harrison were from a Ghanaian village, this stretches credibility and makes one question the truth of the character.

The novel is padded out with interesting characters and the idiosyncratic observations of Harrison. The author gives us a host of intriguing supporting characters, the kind of characters who generally are on the fringes of film and literature – struggling immigrants, sexually predatory young girls... The book attempts to shine a light on how kids on an estate wind up carrying knives and how their values end up corrupted by their environment but somehow the heart is not quite there. The literary aspirations are clear and the idiosyncratic voice is reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time. But somehow this book lacks the warmth and the compelling page-turning quality of that book. The outcome is grim and bleak.

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