Sometimes all you need to pull you into a book, to take you to places that maybe you wouldn’t usually choose to go is a voice. A voice that makes you believe and care.
Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, speaks with one of those voices.
It belongs to eleven year old Harri. He, his mother and his elder sister have come to London, leaving his father, grandmother and another sister behind in Ghana until they can find the means to join them. Harri’s new life begins high in a tower block in the middle of a deprived council estate.
He’s at that at that age when he can see, hear and feel so much in the world, but he doesn’t have the knowledge or the maturity or the experience to fully understand. And, of course, he doesn’t know that.
Many stories have been told from this point in life, but Harri’s story is distinctive and his voice is clear and engaging as he moves through his new world.
As I read the opening chapters there were so many observations that I wanted to pull out and quote, but rather than type them all out I will direct you to the book’s trailer that picks up a good number of them.
Harri races through his new world, in charity shop trainers that he has painted, trying to imitate a much more desirable pair, and his thoughts race too, from subject to subject. From the mystery of girls to the delights of the shopping centre to the rules of survival at school to the wonders of Chelsea FC… there are so many wonderfully observed details, illuminated beautifully by a selection of lists and diagrams.
There were a few wrong notes. A few details felt gratuitous. An encounter with a girl felt wrong. But the worst thing was the pigeon that Harry watched and fed who became his guardian angel. A touch of magical realism that didn’t belong in this story set in a terribly real world.
A world where violence, drugs and poverty as seen as the norm. A world where kids played suicide bombers in the playground, where the police are seen as the enemy, where violent gangs seemed so glamorous …
It wasn’t a world I really wanted to visit, but I cared and so I had to follow Harri.
And the trouble was that, while Harri was basically a good kid, he was just that. A kid. A kid nobody to look out for him, nobody to steer him in the right direction: his father was back in Ghana, his mother was working all the hours she can to support the family, and understood little of the people her son was mixing with.
Harri made mistakes, misjudgements, and it was painful to watch but I couldn’t look away.
And maybe his worst mistake was setting out to investigate the death of a boy, a boy he had liked, who was stabbed and bleed to death in the street …
I’m afraid that as the story advanced it became more confused, and it became difficult to pick out the important things from the more mundane. It may not of helped that I was turning the pages so quickly. I had to. I cared and I wanted to find out what happened, but I feared the worst and so I really didn’t care to linger.
There were flaws in the plotting and in the balancing of the elements, and a few details were just plain wrong.
But Harri’s voice rang true, his story was horribly believable and that could just make Pigeon English a book that stands the test of time to speak for the darker side of life in England’s cities in the early years of the 21st century.