March 10, 2011
Stephen Kelman: Pigeon English
Here is another example of the power of hype – or buzz, or whatever it’s called these days. I heard of this book on the Man Booker Prize forum, where I was told that it had been the subject of bids by twelve publishers. This usually means that the book has been sold for a high price (particularly for a debut like this); and that in turn means that the publishing publicity machine will be strongly behind it. It also means that the book has been judged to be of wide appeal, which may be promising or ominous as your tastes dictate. And so here I am, writing about the book, and adding to the noise.
Pigeon English has an obvious comparison in Emma Donoghue’s Room, for the ‘bidding war’ backstory but also the narrative form of the book, which is an innocent voice – a child – narrating dark or difficult subject matter. There have been so many prominent examples of this type in recent years that it’s a sub-genre of its own. Some of these books go on to great success (and even Booker glory) – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – while others, not obviously less interesting (such as Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans) sink with little trace.
I enjoyed Pigeon English more than Room or Curious Incident, though the necessary elements which fit it into their category are also its weaknesses. It’s narrated by Harrison (‘Harri’) Opoku, an eleven-year-old Ghanaian boy living in London. The issue which the book surrounds is knife crime and, by extension, violence and the dubious position of ‘respect’ in urban and black youth culture. (The story seems to be inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor.) One might well ask what special knowledge a white man approaching middle age might have of such things. All I can say is that the linguistic tics adopted by Kelman in Harri’s voice – ‘hutious’, the overuse of ‘even’ as a blank filler, rebukes like “Advise yourself!” and “You’re vexing me!” – were enough to convince another white man approaching middle age, ie me. The language sounds real and contains just enough unexpected elements to convince the ignorant (me again) that it must really be authentic.
However for the most part, Harri’s voice is charming and funny, which goes a long way in this type of book. His exchanges with his sister Lydia – combative, petulant, sarcastic; in short realistic – are a highlight, and he has a proper childlike freedom of thought.
At first me and Lydia stayed together at breaktime. Now we stay with our friends. If we see each other we have to pretend we don’t know each other. The first one to say hello is the loser. At breaktime I just play suicide bombers or zombies. Suicide bomber is when you run at the other person and crash them as hard as you can. If the other person falls over you get a hundred points. If they just move but don’t fall over it’s ten points. One person is always the lookout because suicide bomber is banned. If the teacher catches you playing you’ll get a detention.
Zombies is just acting like a zombie. You get extra points for accuracy.
The weak point here is the new paragraph describing ‘zombies’, which looks too much like a punchline. Letting the adult author show through is the occupational hazard of child narratives. Harri is older than Jack in Room, and becoming streetwise, so a greater degree of knowingness is valid, but there are plenty of nod-profoundly moments, so called because the reader is clearly supposed to do so while Harri makes some ostensibly innocuous observation. (Of the training shoes owned by the boy stabbing victim at the centre of the book, Harri says, “They looked too empty hanging there. I wanted to wear them but they’d never fit.”) Conversely, the narrative can also be too cute with Harri’s ultra-innocent observations, such as the running joke where he reiterates that he doesn’t want to be “sucked off” by a particular girl because he thinks it means to be kissed really hard. That said, the portrayal of ignorance and invention around the subject of sex by children on the brink of adolescence is convincing.
As Harri conducts his own investigation to try to find out who stabbed (or ‘chooked’) “the dead boy,” we learn plenty about his family and their circumstances. His father and baby sister Agnes remain in Ghana. His aunt Sonia has a grisly method of remaining undetected by authorities who may deport her. It is at the extremes – the funny childhood experiences, the unspeakable adult ones – that Pigeon English does its best work, rather than when it tries artfully to meld the two. It also has some ‘stranger in a strange land’ observations about British culture and the national psyche which make their point nicely.
In England nobody helps if you fall over. They can’t tell if you’re serious or if it’s just a trick. It’s too hard to know what’s real.
The punning title comes from the pigeon which Harri talks to on his windowsill. Unfortunately, through some editorial blunder, there are short passages in the book narrated by the pigeon which have been allowed to make the final version. An interesting idea perhaps – representation of the weak or minorities – but one which seriously damages the book’s narrative integrity. (The pigeon’s voice can’t be the imaginings of Harri, as its language is too complex.) Fortunately these passages are brief, and don’t damage the overall achievement, which is a decent, contemporary and original report on innocence and its loss.