Manchester Book Club reviews Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Confronted by a strong selection of books to choose from by Manchester Book Club veteran Veronica, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman came out on top. A much-lauded debut novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, hopes were high that this would be a satisfying read that would give us a lot to talk about.
Harrison Okopu is eleven years old and a detective. The novel opens with the discovery that a boy has been killed outside Chicken Joe’s on the Dell Farm Estate in London and, along with his friend Dean (who watches CSI and therefore knows all the tricks) they commence a childish detective game to discover ‘whodunnit’ and, for adults reading the book, frequently coast far too close to reality for comfort.
Harrison’s circumstances sound familiar, even to those with no experience of vast inner-city estates. A Ghanaian immigrant who came to Britain with his mother and older sister for the chance of a better life, Harrison dodges the druggies and hoodies and anxiously awaits the arrival of his father, baby sister and grandmother from across the water.
The estate, seen through the eyes of quite possibly the most convincing child narrator you will ever encounter, is a bleak place, where children, banding together for protection, inevitably turn to drugs and violence to make their way in this tough world. Harrison is a good boy, but can he distance himself from the lethal spiral of hatred and crime that threatens to get its claws into them all?
Book club choices that everyone adores always threaten a barren discussion where people enthuse about how wonderful the book was and then rapidly move on to something else. Not so with Pigeon English. A good hour was spent in debate and, periodically, in nostalgia for our childhood.
Harrison may live on a rough council estate and have an entirely disparate cultural background to his Mancunian readers, but his innocence and the joy he gains from the simplest things in life reminded us all of the days when we really didn’t fully understand what was going on either. In our lives this was an advantage and afforded protection from a harsh and often disappointing world; Harrison’s innocence is, tragically, very dangerous.
Kelman’s ability, as a debut author and white, middle-aged male, to authentically replicate this little boy’s inner voice is nothing short of astounding. Budding authors are always advised to write about what they know and, although Kelman grew up on a similar estate himself, the profound understanding that exists between the author and his child hero elevates this novel from being something of pure greatness to quite simply the best book club choice in 13 months of reading together.
In Harrison’s world where everything is either ‘bo-styles’ or ‘hutious’ we also encounter the slightly less authentic narrative of his pigeon, who he speaks to (only to be met with silence ‘…’) and believes is watching over him.
Thankfully the pigeon’s chance to speak came rarely as the group felt that, although important to have a contrasting narrative to Harrison in the book, the animal’s philosophical and spiritual musings often jarred with his simplistic world view and could, dare we say it, be deemed a little pretentious. Is the pigeon this little boy’s guardian angel or is it just a pigeon? No solid conclusion was reached.
However, Ghanaian spiritual beliefs around animals and, more specifically, birds lent an intriguing slant to the discussion. Is the pigeon the dead boy looking down on Harrison? Is the pigeon really a pigeon or it just a figment of our imagination?