Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman hits all the right buttons on the back cover copy and inside flaps. In theory, it sounds like a great coming-of-age novel dealing with race, culture, immigration, acceptance and adolescent violence. However, I had a lot of trouble getting into the story and I was finding it difficult to relate to.
Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on a London housing estate. The second best runner in his grade, Harri races through his new life in his personalized trainers — the Adidas stripes drawn on with marker — blissfully unaware of the very real threat all around him.
With equal fascination for the local gang — the Dell Farm Crew — and the pigeon who visits his balcony, Harri absorbs the many strange elements of his new life in England: watching, listening, and learning the tricks of inner-city survival. But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly endangers the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to try and keep them safe.
A story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality, Pigeon English is a spellbinding portrayal of a boy balancing on the edge of manhood and of the forces around him that try to shape the way he falls.
From the publisher, House of Anansi Press
I think what bothered me most about this book wasn’t the broken English or the made-up phrases. It was actually the two-dimensionality of Harri’s character. I just found it unrealistic for him to be so repetitive, simple-minded and was often frustrated by the lack of direction in the story.
I think the concept—the themes and ideas it broaches—are interesting and unique. I think the descriptions of the world around him are interesting and believable. I just found that Harrison’s actual mix between beliefs and actions to be far too child-like.Also, I understand the title being a play on pidgin as well as the fact that Harri likes to talk to the pigeons… but who thought it would be a good idea to have portions narrated by the pigeons?
Unfortunately, it felt like Pigeon English was being dumbed down for no apparent reason, because most 11-year-olds — despite whether they are Ghanian or Londoners or Americans or whathaveyou—are very smart and quite tuned into the adult world around them, even if they don’t always understand it. Had Harri been younger, I might have found his voice more believable, but his naïveté wasn’t plausible for me.
Full disclosure: I received a copy (unsolicited) from the publisher. I chose to read and review it. This situation did not affect my review in any way, shape or form.