Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

7th June 2011

*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 read this ebook courtesy of the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley.

** I didn’t find any blog reviews of this book. If you’ve reviewed it, let me know, and I’ll add your link.


  • Sounds very interesting – hadn’t heard of it, but enjoyed the review & it seems like something I would like. Child narrators can be tricky but you’ve made this sound quite good – will look out for it.

    • pickygirl

      Thanks! Yeah – I know a lot of people don’t like child narrators, but they don’t especially bother me. I can see how they would if they were annoying or unbelievable, but I thought Harri was great. Let me know if you read this one.

  • I’ve had this one for a while from NetGalley, but I see the pub date and keep putting it off. I’ll be interested to see if the pigeon thing bothers me.

    I’m usually okay with child narrators, but the book I’m reading now has one, and I’m not loving it. Of course, I’m being very picky these days, so that might be it. I’m going to try again in a few days.

    When I get to Pigeon English, I’ll let you know!

    • pickygirl

      The pigeon thing bugged me BIG TIME. Like, I don’t understand why it was there. I hope when it’s pubbed that has been removed. BUT, it was also a very minimal part of the book, so it didn’t ruin the reading.

      Which book is it? And imagine – one of my readers …picky? 🙂

  • Amy

    Glad to see that you enjoyed this one. I wasn’t a huge fan but there was some interesting parts. It was the pigeon. Ugh. That part just really really really turned me off!! (And it’s in the published Canadian version so yeah, I think it’s there to stay sadly.)

    • pickygirl

      THANK YOU! Stupid pigeon. I really just wanted him to shut up and go poop elsewhere.