Wednesday, 31 July 2013

"Pigeon English," by Stephen Kelman

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This was a chance purchase at a charity bookstall.  It wasn't especially one that I felt driven to read at the time it came out but, as I find it interesting to read Booker nominated books, I picked it up when I had a cheap opportunity.  I read it a few months ago, but feeling rough has meant that I am only just now writing about it.  That and, if I'm honest, I wasn't sure what to write about it as I didn't love it but I didn't hate it either.

Stephen Kelman's hero is an 11 year old Ghanian boy, Harrison Opoku, who has moved to the UK with his mother and sister.  At the start of the novel, Harrison sees the dead body of a boy who he knows, although not especially closely, from school.  Harrison is deeply affected by this and, with a friend, turns detective to try to find out who killed his schoolfriend.

I found Harrison's voice particularly effective and this, for me, was the main strength of the book (however I should say that I know very few 11 year old boys against whom I can judge verisimilitude, and none of these are Ghanian refugees).  His linguistic style is distinctive and interspersed with slang from his home culture, one connotation of the pidgen English of the title. Harrison has a very active imagination and there is a strong vein of humour in his musings on life (such as imagining his grandfather in heaven playing rock, paper, scissors with Jesus). Kelman quite effectively shows the effects that growing up in a violent environment have on Harrison, as his desire to belong to a gang is at war with his own evolving awareness of what is right and wrong. 

There was, however, an aspect to this book with which I did have a huge issue.  The bloody pigeon.  It's a pigeon who thinks in English ... do you see what he did there? When Harrison sees the dead boy, he notices that a pigeon has walked in his blood; this pigeon becomes a - thankfully sparingly used - recurring character.  The narrative of the novel is occasional interrupted by the musings of the pigeon, who is gifted with an omniscient, godlike, insight into the human race.  This really didn't work for me.  I'm too old and cynical to accept the slightly twee concept of the pigeon commenting on humanity at face value.  As an alternative I considered the possibility that these thoughts were ascribed to the pigeon by Harrison but, as they seem beyond the level of emotional and intellectual maturity that he displays elsewhere in the novel, this interpretation didn't work for me either.  I acknowledge that maybe there is an aspect of Harrison's cultural inheritance from his origins in Ghana that might make sense of this for me but, without that knowledge, I didn't manage to come to terms with pigeon thought as a literary device.

I don't think that this is a book that I would be tempted to re-read, so this is likely to be bound for a charity shop or the work book swap shelf.  I have to confess that, while I didn't dislike it as a whole, I am slightly unsure why it was lauded highly enough to be on the Booker shortlist.  The vivid and entertaining narrative voice is its main strength, and maybe this was a major contributing factor to its consideration, but ultimately I didn't quite find it as satisfying as I hoped.