Book – Pigeon English
Author – Stephen Kelman
Year – 2011
Genre – Fiction
Pages – 263
Bought for me by Alex Campbell
For whatever reason, I hold the Man Booker prize in high esteem. I have read a few of the winners before (see The Sea and Vernon God Little for those I have read and reviewed on this blog) and have bought many more that are currently in my colossal “To Read” pile, but in general I tend to see the Man Booker as an endorsement that this is going to be a well written book and worth my time.
Pigeon English is not a winner, but was nominated a couple of years back. Alex bought it for me as it is written from the point of view of a Year Seven student – and as a lot of my time seems to be taken up with the dealings of Year Sevens (yes, when you deal with them as I do, Year Seven deserves capitalisation) it may be an interesting read.
And it really is. It follows Harri, a Ghanaian boy who has come to England with half of his family whilst his father stays behind with his grandmother and baby sister until they can raise the money to fly over. At its heart, it is a book about an impressionable boy trying to fit into a rough neighbourhood that is shaken by the fatal stabbing of a local teenager. Heavily influenced by the case of Damilola Taylor, it gives a true feeling of the London of now, and whilst far heavier than anything I deal with on a day to day basis at school, feels very real in its approach to everyday issues.
The real star of the book is Harri – or more specifically the way that he talks. Written in first person, Kelman does not hold back in mixing his Ghanaian slang with some of the new London slang he encounters. This only goes to heighten the fantastic voice that the character finds. Terribly naive and gullible, he misuses words and switches topics in a way that I often chastise the Year Sevens in my classes for doing whilst building on a structure that is unmistakably an eleven year old’s. Far from being maddening, it really does develop a fantastic characterisation that again lends a certain amount of credibility to the story. Whilst unspectacular, it still makes it a book worth reading just for that.
My sole issue with the book is unfortunately a relatively large one. Despite a wonderful build with some excellent supporting cast being introduced, the ending feels rushed. Having stretched out some powerfully tense moments, I wanted a more suitable conclusion to wrap it all up. It may have been the writer’s intention to finish how he did, but personally I was disappointed. This has knocked it a few marks, but despite that I already know that it is a book that I am incredibly pleased to have read, with a style that I think I will remember for a long time. This is Kelman’s first novel, so I shall definitely be keeping an eye out to see how he can follow it up – hopefully with the same writing flair, but just a slightly better finish.
Book – Pigeon English