Wednesday 4 May 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

I received a copy of Pigeon English, written by Stephen Kelman and published by Bloomsbury via the Amazon Vine programme.

Apparently, this novel was plucked from the 'slush pile' by an agent and was then sold for a six-figure sum after a round of frenzied bids were made by various publishers.  Kelman grew up on a council estate in Luton and has based this debut novel on the murder of Damilola Taylor, the ten-year old boy who was killed on a Peckham estate in 2000.

The book is narrated by eleven-year old Harri Opuko, he and his mother and older sister have recently arrived from Ghana and live in a block of flat on an inner-city housing estate.

Harri's father and baby sister are still in Ghana,  his mother works as a midwife.    Although the story centres around the murder of a young boy outside a chicken takeaway shop, it is really Harri's observations of this strange place that he has come to live in.  He finds the language strange - lots of words mean the same thing.  If something is 'gay' then it means it is stupid, and why are there so many ways of saying that you are going to the toilet?

Harri is a typical eleven-year old; fascinated and curious, daring and innocent.  He decides that he must solve the murder case and soon he is out with binoculars, interviewing suspects and trying to get some fingerprints.

There is an air of menace about the story, Harri and his friends are growing up in a violent environment - they play 'suicide bombers' at school, they 'chook' each other with compasses.  Harri however, doesn't seem to understand just how threatening a situation he is getting himself.

Harri is an endearing, quite authentic character and Kelman has captured the innocence and curiosity of a small boy very well.  It's a fascinating look at the world of inner-city gangs with characters who appear real. The only part of the book that I really disliked was the addition of a second narrator, every now and again there is a passage supposedly narrated by a pigeon - a play on the title of the book.  I found this a bit pretentious - almost as if the author was giving the reader a sermon about life, which was not needed at all.

On the whole though, apart from the pigeon, I enjoyed reading this book.  It's a serious subject matter, and a clever way of dealing with it.

I'll look forward to seeing what Stephen Kelman can come up with next.


  1. I really like the sound of this but I seem to have read a lot recently with child narrators and need a break from them. Maybe one for the future :)

  2. There does seem to be alot of child narrators at the moment. This one is done well, I think you'd enjoy it

  3. Sounds good, the only child narrator I have had was room by emma donoghue so think I would cope fine with this

  4. They had this book on Amazon Kindle for £1.49 the other week so I downloaded a copy for my phone so I had something to read when I'd not got a book to hand. Reviews were generally good.

  5. This does sound interesting. On a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best, how would you rate this book?

    I saw your blog mentioned on another so I popped by. I am now a new GFC follower.

  6. Hi Shirley and welcome.
    Which blog was I mentioned on?
    I gave Pigeon English 4 out of 5 on my Amazon review. Most of the way through the book, I was veering towards a 3, but the ending is excellent and it jumped up to a 4
    I hope you enjoy it

  7. I have this out from the library at the moment, so I'm hoping to read it next. I've heard good things about it and so I'm really looking forward to it.