Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011) 263 p.
Eleven-year old Harrison Opoku is a newly-arrived Ghanian immigrant to the United Kingdom, living in a run-down council flat with his sister and mother. Harrison is wide-eyed and excited about life in London, but the lot of an immigrant is to be mired in urban poverty and exposed to the criminal scum of human society. Pigeon English opens with Harrison witnessing the aftermath of a fatal stabbing against an older boy, and follows his naive attempts to track down the killer.
The novel is narrated from Harrison’s first-person point of view, relying on the time-honoured method of having a child narrator witness events that he can’t quite understand, but which the reader can. (And frankly, for an eleven-year old, he’s a fucking idiot.) Harrison’s meandering tale is peppered with a mixture of African-accented phoentics and London slang, and I quickly grew tired of reading the words “donkey hours,” “everybody agrees,” and “Asweh!” It’s not the Kelman fails to create a convincing voice for Harry, but rather that a) it’s an annoying voice, and b) he uses it as a crutch to give the book a sense of profundity. There are a number of scenes where Kelman relies on Harrison’s plain statements to relay the book’s unsubtle themes, and some clumsy attempts at symbolism which come across as the author clutching at straws. The book’s talking pigeon, which speaks directly to the reader (and sometimes to Harrison) had me rolling my eyes.
Pigeon English also has a completely left-field ending, one which I thought was a bit harsh, but at that point I no longer cared. It was one of those novels which I was really happy to finish, simply because I didn’t have to read it anymore.
The rave reviews worry me. Without them, I’d be honestly surprised that this clumsy and amaterish novel had even been shortlisted. In any case, Pigeon English is the least worthy of all the shortlisted novels I’ve read thus far, and if it wins it will be at the expense of several astronomically superior books (specifically Jamrach’s Menagerie and The Sisters Brothers). Given that this year’s panel seem to be very open to genre novels and not as much to the traditional contemporary-realist-moralising type, I feel that I can safely say it won’t win. And yet it lurks. It lurks.