A Disappointing Read in Stephen Kelman’s “Pigeon English”

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It’s always a disappointment to pick up that novel you’ve been excited to read for ages only to have it not live up to those high hopes you had for it. This was my experience with Stephen Kelman’s “Pigeon English.” What drew me initially to buy this book was it’s bright orange and yellow cover with the silhouette of a boy and a pigeon. The story is compelling: a young Ghanaian immigrant, Harrison Opuku, living in London attempts to solve the murder of another boy. His experiences lead him to encounter gang violence and poverty. 

The author’s style is not one that I prefer to read. Dialogue is presented in a similar way as a screenplay (Name: Comment). I found this style created a choppy element to the story and made it difficult to get in to the flow of the text. It failed to hold my attention for extended periods of time, so I was unable to read this novel quickly. It was difficult to bring myself back to the text and I only continued to pick it up because I am unable to walk away from any novel that I’ve begun to read. 

Harrison Opuku is an intelligent and likeable character. He is a boy on the cusp of adolescence and still holds onto the innocence of childhood. He struggles with morality as he is put through gang initiation (which he walks away from) and faces the murder of a boy in his neighbourhood. As the story is told from his perspective, the narrative contains the idiosyncrasies of Harrison’s presumably recently learned, and not completely correct English, as well as the language fumbles of a child attempting to use those large adult words that he does not yet totally understand. Harrison’s own pigeon English gives a unique voice to the story, however in my opinion, it serves to further the disruptive nature of the story’s structure. 

The second half of the novel was much better than the first for me. I adjusted to the diction and the format of the story and came to really like Harrison as a character. The novel sells itself as a tale of Harrison’s journey to solve the murder. He “decides to act, unwittingly endangering the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe” as the jacket copy states. The extent of the danger to Harri’s mother seems to be the anonymous carving of the word “DEAD” onto the families door. Perhaps there was more danger lying under the surface of the story, however if this exists, it’s not something I picked up on. An additional 50 pages on the end may have helped to round out the narrative and to provide a satisfying conclusion to the intense investigation that the boy conducts. 

I have no desire to read this novel again. Perhaps in a few years, when I have forgotten what the story is about, I may pick it up again. This novel was short listed for many awards, but it wasn’t to my taste in the slightest. 

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