*You can preorder this book from Indiebound. Pub date is 07/19/11.
Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is about Harry Opoku, an 11-year-old boy living on a housing estate in London. Harri, his mother, and sister, have emigrated from Ghana, leaving behind his father, baby sister Agnes, and grandmother. Harri misses them and befriends an itinerant pigeon, talking to him as he might write in a journal.
Harri has more than a typical 11-year-old’s problems to write or talk about: an older boy is murdered near Harri’s house, and he caught a glimpse of the hooded murderer. Narrating his own story with “It felt crazy” or “It was hutious” and “It’s brutal,” Harri, in one breath, talks about the murder outside Chicken Joe’s and then moves on to describing where he lives, Poppy – the girl he likes, how fast his tennis shoes make him run, then flitting back to the murder. He and his best friend Dean start hunting for the killer, using sellotape to get fingerprints and digging in the mud near the river for the murder weapon. Dean tells Harri he saw how to investigate crime on Law & Order.
These boys, though, aren’t playing ‘cops and robbers’. The estate is full of questionable characters – Terry Takeaway, the alcoholic vagrant walking his pit bull Asbo, and X-Fire and Killa, both gang members. Gang activity is common and is a very real threat to any young man on the estate, and these criminals are hell bent on staying out of jail. Harri, in his innocence, crosses them too many times.
What I didn’t love: and what I thought was a really odd choice in terms of the writing, were the moments when the pigeon had a paragraph at the beginning of the chapter, talking back to Harri. It brought the action of the novel to a halt and imposed an unnatural, and to me, unnecessary, voice to the book. In fact, it felt (similarly to Little Bee) preachy. And I don’t like that.
What I loved: Harri enchanted me – 100%. I loved his voice. I loved his innocence and his gritty depiction of his reality, and how he didn’t always understand how the two collided.
In fact, I’d say Spelman has done an excellent job of writing in an 11-year-old, disadvantaged boy’s voice without making a sentimental novel. Harri’s observations were often hilarious – he likes to “see the chief” after his mom cleans the toilet with Bleach, so he can “piss on a cloud.” Isn’t that so 11-year-old boy-ish? Yes, there is harshness and death and fear in this story, but it never overwhelmed the truth and fun in Harri’s telling.
Has anyone heard of or read this book? I’d love your thoughts on it.
jenn aka the picky girl
** I didn’t find any blog reviews of this book. If you’ve reviewed it, let me know, and I’ll add your link.