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.


  1. ‘…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.’

    This is my primary fear with this. The unseen ‘nudge’ points upon which the whole enterprise seems to rest. Entire passages building towards them. Even if that’s not the case, it often feels so. It’s a bit like stacking glass bottles: it looks great but you can only go so high and it’s going to end badly. The example you refer to is a case in point.

  2. You’re right Lee. I must say that when I reread this review last night before it went up (I wrote it some weeks ago), I was surprised that I had ended on such a positive note. Nonetheless, it does have charm and likeability, and – yes – it’s better than Room. I don’t get this review in the Telegraph, though, which offers only three or four sentences on the book’s strengths (apparently no weaknesses), and calls it ‘critic-proof’. I suppose that’s true in the sense that it will be widely read regardless of its problems as a work of literature, but it doesn’t excuse the critic from saying what those are.

    I’m surprised there haven’t been more reviews of it in the press so far: it was published earlier this week and papers usually like to get their reviews in early, particularly if, as with this book, it’s likely to be big.

    1. On the Telegraph review, which is completely ridiculous, here are the two offending elements of the piece.

      The first is kind of embarrassing, a fairly transparent (and weak) attempt at pre-empting anyone with any negative comment. The inference seemingly: because it ‘adresses urgent social questions’ it is excused from ‘quite irrelevant’ opinion.

      ‘It is bad form to be rude about first novels, and a pleasure to praise them. Stephen Kelman’s 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. In this case, though, my praise is quite irrelevant because – unusually for any novel, let alone a first one – Pigeon English is critic-proof. The reasons for this are not exclusively literary.’

      The second completely gives the game away towards the end.

      ‘Pigeon English will be read by millions who have never read a book review.’

  3. That’s an interesting point about the “punchline”, though I don’t necessarily agree in this specific case. In the first paragraph, Harri focuses on one game. In the second, on the other. That there’s a lot less to say about a “zombie” game seems to me as more of a good trade-off, less as a pure punchline…

  4. I’ve just asked my 11 year old son who goes to an S E London comp if he or his friends have ever played ‘Suicide Bombers’ – never heard of it. Although they sometimes play Zombies.

      1. Why?
        I also just asked my 13 year old daughter who would have been 10is at said time, also never heard of it. I should add that the school they both go to is perhaps two miles from Peckham.

  5. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a tremendous novel. The way the book turns on its ending is almost Graham Greene-ian.

    This just sounds worthy, and the talking pigeon sounds a very off-note. A topical subject matter doesn’t of itself make a book worth reading.

    To be honest though, after you mentioned Room the rest of the review would have had to sing a lot of praises to win me over…

  6. If you look closely, Max, you’ll see the cover features blurb from Emma Donoghue which describes the book as “this boy’s love letter to the world.” The blurb on the Canadian version is somewhat longer calling the novel “a triumph”. I’m pretty sure you are now completely put off it.

  7. I had better mildly defend this book now. Unlike Room, where I came out thinking “I didn’t like that,” I finished Pigeon English thinking that I did like it. We’re talking, on Amazon terms, probably two and three stars respectively. It is enjoyable but I don’t think it’s outstanding in literary terms (I might boldly proclaim that that’s why so many publishers were keen on it and thought it might do well).

    On a side note, I’m surprised that there has been so little coverage of this book in the press so far. It was published last week but just one national newspaper in the UK has reviewed it. Normally they like to get their reviews out shortly before publication, particularly when a book is tipped for success. Of course, the first week in March has been a particularly heavy one for new releases this year – at one point it seemed like I had a dozen review copies for books all released on 3 March – so perhaps they’re just waiting a week or two to let the crowd thin.

  8. Kevin, you’re quite correct. Useful blurbs in fact.

    John, three whole stars? Be still my beating heart. Mild defence indeed.

    Publishers do like books that seem sort of literary but that actually are pretty accessible (and why not? Publishers need to make money too). This seems in that sort of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin territory.

  9. That’s an interesting (and in my opinion astute) review, Lee.

    Max, I think Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is better than that. It has achieved a sort of pariah status because of its popularity, but it’s a well-written book which makes certain demands of the reader and I think is on the whole a success (I say this though I read it – crikey! – 16 years ago, during my final year at university, so memory is necessarily foggy). I liked de Bernieres’ earlier Cochadebajo de los Gatos trilogy, and keep meaning to revisit them, and he himself claims that the novel which (eventually) followed Corelli, Birds Without Wings, is his masterpiece. From the reviews I don’t think that’s a claim many would make for the two books he’s published since.

    Incidentally, a sign of the changing times: I first discovered de Bernieres when I read a review of his second novel Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord on ITV/Channel 4’s Oracle teletext service. It had just come out in paperback so that must have been 1992. I am pretty sure that, if teletext even still exists (and I know Oracle doesn’t), they don’t review black comic novels satirising Pinochet’s Chile any more.

  10. I think you can avoid the pigeon passages altogether and not miss anything. Actually, to not have read the book, I don’t think I’d be missing much. I liked it less than you, JS! (But more than Room, just).

  11. I completely agree Colette – I can’t see why an editor didn’t insist on the pigeon passages being removed. Even people who loved the book, like Alex Clark in the Guardian last weekend, don’t like those sections.

  12. I’m with you two — I stopped reading the pigeon passages in the last third of the book (okay, I did skim them). Actually, I think their inclusion indicates some of the uncertainty that Kelman had with the way he approached the book. I suspect the pigeon served the author more than it did the reader. From my perspective, that was too bad — there is enough here to indicate that Kelman has promise, but it sure wasn’t realized in this book. Then again, he got the big advance so he has food on the table while he writes the next one.

  13. I do know some of the backstory behind this book – because I’m sort of in the biz myself, I happen know the literary agency, the agent and the talent scout involved. And I think you’re right in the way you bracket it – that is, the way the publishing industry brackets it, and the way the media at large is likely to react.

    No book of this kind is ever exactly bad. Donoghue’s Room (on which my view is the same as yours) isn’t bad exactly. But golly gosh, that kind of media buzz does put a ceiling on how ambitious the book is likely to be. The real key, I reckon, is the extent to which these books grapple with darkness. Darkness – real darkness – doesn’t sell so these books can’t really go there, even if (say) Joseph Fritzl is the theme.

  14. Thanks for your thoughts, Harry. Well put; ambition and darkness are good measures of the limitations of these books. Room, for all the tears it has supposedly jerked, has almost no darkness in it at all. Incidentally I note that two months or so after publication, Pigeon English hasn’t captured the minds of the reading public the way Room had after the same period – though in fairness, Room was longlisted for the Booker Prize a few days before it was published, so it hit the ground running – or rather walking briskly. Pigeon English has plenty of time to pick up award listings or R&J-type inclusions, though its ‘Waterstone’s Eleven’ nomination doesn’t seem to have helped it much. Perhaps it will end up being one of those big purchases which falls flat on its face.

  15. Umm…grumpy comment.

    If Harry’s comment is a reflection of the language ability of those “in the biz” right now, even allowing for keypad issues, we readers are in serious trouble in the near future.

  16. Kevin, I am baffled by your grumpy comment. I see no solecisms or language issues in Harry’s comment. Do your objections relate solely to his ironic and distancing use of ‘in the biz’? Surely not!

  17. Hmm, Kevin, I say ‘sort of in the biz’, because I’m an author – of fiction and non-fiction – and because I run a large literary consultancy for first time writers. (It’s the Writers’ Workshop, if you want to take a look).

    That latter role makes me something of an insider, because I spend a lot of time talking to agents and publishers. Yet I’m not a true insider, because publishers and agents tend to see authors as being outside rather than inside their industry. Hence ‘sort of in the biz’. I hope I know how to put a sentence together though.

  18. I probably should have kept my fingers quiet. And I should probably also admit that my age means that “large literacy consultancy for first time writers” was not a feature of the literary landscape when I was growing up (and my friends were writing their drafts of books never to be published — I never had cause to regret opting for journalism instead).

    As a book buyer, I am quite aware of how marketing and retailing has changed. I am less aware (but not totally so) of how the world of getting published in the first place has changed. And, yes, I am quite sure someone has written a book about that that I have refused to buy.

  19. Ha, well, I’m the author of just such a book, as it happens. (Getting Published, the book in question.)

    But things haven’t changed as much as you think. In the end, it’s still all about writing a book that’s good enough to sell. All that consultancies can do is put you in touch with editors who (i) are going to be brutally honest, (ii) have enough literary feel and experience to give advice worth giving, and (iii) understand enough about the market that they can guide you in commercial terms as well as literary ones.

    But whereas agents are an essential part of any novelist’s progress to publication, literary consultancies are entirely optional. I got published without outside help, something which is still true of a majority of new authors. On the other hand, there are plenty of writers who do need a helping hand (or at least find that a helping hand can vastly shorten the journey to publication). There’s no recipe to suit all tastes.

    On a side point, though, I have certainly found myself becoming a better and more conscious writer because of my editorial work. A better reader, too.

  20. I have just finished reading this and am really confused by the ending. Did Harri die? Was he the ‘dead boy’ all along? Did Jordan or killa kill him? It was so sudden, I couldn’t keep up!

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