Pigeon English is a novel of powerful themes and exposes the hidden, violent, underbelly of urban poor and immigrant communities within a first-world nation. But the novel has some large flaws and has probably attracted more acclaim than it deserves
Pigeon English, the first novel from author Stephen Kelman, is narrated by Harrison ‘Harri’ Opoku, an eleven-year old boy who has emigrated to South London from Ghana with his mother and sister, and who gives us an insight into his life. It is a world of knife-violence within school gangs; housing estates populated by the poor, immigrants and addicts; of absent fathers and violent role-models; of early sexual experiences delivered with aggression rather than love, lust or just curiosity. Even Harri’s aunt lives with a thug who supplies forged visas for illegal immigrants at exorbitant prices while she burns off her fingerprints to avoid identification.
These are some pretty powerful themes. But are they delivered within a story that does them justice? Has regard for the themes elevated the esteem for this novel above other considerations?
What is the story here? The novel begins with Harri telling us of the senseless murder of a schoolmate who was stabbed in the street. Harri and his friend Dean decide they are going to investigate the murder themselves, role-playing themselves as the buddy-detectives of TV shows they’ve seen. This is the closest the novel comes to telling a story, generating an instant comparison to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was my main reason to keep reading, but it is a small aspect of the book. Much of this novel is filled not with plot or dialogue but instead with Harri’s childish observations, assertions and beliefs.
From comments the author has made in interviews, authenticity was something he was especially striving for in this novel and in the voice of his narrator, Harri. He has drawn from his own experiences of growing up in estate housing and news coverage of youth violence and immigrant experience. In particular, he appears to be drawing from the famous case of Damilola Taylor, a 10-year-old Nigerian immigrant, who was killed by a couple of 12-year-olds in 2000. To my mind it has failed to deliver the sought authenticity.
I do not find Harri believable as an eleven-year-old. This is something that annoyed me all the way through the book. With the exception of Harri’s growing interest in girls and a sexuality on the verge of emerging, much of his narration seems immature for his age. For the most part Harri comes across as a bit slow, a bit simple, for an eleven-year-old and sounds more like an eight-year-old.
The waffle also does not make for good storytelling, especially for an adult reader. It comes across like the superfluous material a good writer (or a good editor) would omit. The author’s concerns for authenticity have come at the expense of good storytelling.
There are some skilfully achieved elements of authenticity in the novel but it comes not from the waffle that is left in, but rather from what has been omitted. Chief among these are the moral questions Harri has not yet thought to ask himself. Harri has a sense of morality that we would expect from a child – in simple black-and-white terms, referring to what he has been taught (indoctrinated in), rightly or wrongly and from good or bad sources.
But Harri has not yet realised the contradiction between the violent, illegal, immoral activities of the gangs he is eager to join and his sense of moral right. When the contradiction does present itself, he reacts naturally, emotionally and does not think to question. Nor does he notice the contradiction between his aspiration of being respected by the gangs and his detective role-playing and is naïve to the nature of Julius, the passport forger, who lives with his aunt and wields a bat he calls ‘the persuader’. Julius is his only male role-model and if anything Harri looks up to him. These dilemmas, that the reader notices but Harri does not, achieve the best sense of Harri’s stage in the development of his conscience.
The ‘Pigeon English’ of the title refers to the vernacular of the estate occupants and also to the pigeon Harri believes is watching over him like a guardian angel. To the dismay of a reader who may want to give this novel a fair go, the pigeon talks back! Although only the reader perceives this, not Harri, it only adds to the flaws of the novel that we have to listen to the commentary of a pretentious flying rodent. Even fans of the novel would have to agree it was not a good idea and does not work.
The journey of the novel is itself a rags-to-riches story. Reportedly picked up from an agent’s slush pile, it subsequently became the subject of a bidding war between publishers and achieved as high an acclaim as being shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. But as it ascended, it attracted more criticism. Is the voice of the novel really authentic or does it just seem that way to a middle-class audience? Is it really ground-breaking? Aren’t there many writers (including African immigrants) who have also written, more genuinely and with greater skill, of the UK underclass struggles and immigrant communities but have not received nearly the same recognition?
‘Recognition’ is the key word. 2011 was the infamous ‘readability’ year for the Booker Prize where the judges were accused of ‘dumbing down’ the Prize and of selecting accessibility over excellence. Pigeon English in particular was singled out for not being worthy of a shortlisting, especially over the fancied The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. Stephen Kelman admitted to feeling he has ‘gatecrashed’ the Prize. I am inclined to agree.
Overall, I found Pigeon English to be a mediocre first novel. There are some promising elements, some skill on show but also some glaring flaws. One cannot help but feel that its themes and its misplaced recognition have elevated the novel above an honest appreciation of the quality of the work.