Pigeon English is an almost cinematic portrayal of immigration, of the sacrifices families make to obtain a better quality of life in first-world countries like England, and of the harsh circumstances that await the poorest upon arrival.
Stephen Kelman’s writing is so imaginative that the words themselves seemed to lift off each page to create vivid scenes of present-day London in my mind. Only this was not the London of Westminster, Big Ben, or Piccadilly, but rather a London of crumbling housing estates, a city far from Tube stops, a place of poverty and violence. That we experience this story through the eyes of a child, makes Pigeon English all the more compelling.
Our protagonist, Harrison (Harri) Obuku, has immigrated to London from Ghana with his mother and older sister. Harri’s father and infant sister remain in Ghana but plan to join them when more money is saved for passage. Harri is “the man of the house” at eleven years old. The story is told completely from Harri’s point-of-view; we know his every thought and emotion and we journey with him as he navigates his new environment with curiosity and confusion. There is just something about this boy–his ebullience, his inquisitiveness, his authenticity. I cared for him immensely from the moment I met him. It is worth reading Pigeon English just to spend time with Harri.
The book opens with Harri and a friend coming upon a bloody scene–a boy Harri knows has been stabbed to death while being robbed of his take-away food. What is horrifying is the stoicism both boys display, as if this event is commonplace. Even the sight of the boy’s blood doesn’t really faze them.
Harri and his friend decide to find the boy’s killer, which makes Pigeon English a murder mystery of sorts. Only it really isn’t, as the dark forces that killed this innocent child, become readily known to us, the readers. Harri’s pursuit puts him in grave danger, but he cannot sense it. His early experiences in Ghana and his current situation in South London where fear is intrinsic to the environment have made him numb to danger. I found that I wanted to immerse myself into the story just to protect Harri, I had developed such affection for him.
The language in Pigeon English gives the story a vital heart beat. Mr. Kelman brings Harri’s character to life with his external and internal dialogue, a mixture of Ghanaian-British English. This unique dialect only made Harri more endearing. Some reviewers have criticized the author for Harri’s repetitive dialogue in the book, but I think they have missed the point. Harri is a boy with a limited vocabulary and is bound by these limitations when attempting to express himself. One word stands out among all the rest, “hutious,” which in Ghanaian means “scary.” Harri says the word a lot, which says a lot about the world Harri inhabits.
I had initially thought that the title Pigeon English was simply a clever play on words, especially after immersing myself in the book’s dialogue. However, there is more to this title and it relates to a spiritual thread that runs throughout the story. Although I loved the idea of Harri having a guardian angel that watched over him and with which he alone could communicate, the selection by the author of an actual pigeon for this role, one who is eloquent and philosophical, simply did not work for me. I struggled with the symbolism. Perhaps the intent was to link one of God’s lowliest creatures on earth with the plight of poor immigrants, but why? Was it meant to show that the meek will inherit the earth? Unfortunately, we are given no answer which I think is a disappointing flaw in an otherwise wonderful story.
The morning after I finished Pigeon English, it was short-listed with five other titles for the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Stephen Kelman certainly has the attention of the literary world with this first novel and I will definitely look for his next book given the overall quality of this debut.