Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English

Pigeon English was selected as one of the Waterstone’s 11 and I loved the sample section that I tried.

The book is set in London where 11-year-old Harri has recently arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister. A boy is stabbed to death on their estate, but police enquiries meet a wall of silence so Harri decides to start his own investigation into the murder.

Pigeon English has been compared to Room, but the only similarity is that they both have a child narrator. The difference between the innocence of a five-year-old and the insecurities of a pre-teen means that the two narrators are worlds apart.

Harri was an engaing character and I loved some of his observations about our society, but unfortunately the writing style began to grate on me as I progressed further into the book. The play-like layout of the text ruined the flow of the narrative for me, giving it a jumpy feel.

I also found that the mind of an eleven-year-old boy held little interest for me. I’m sure that it is all very realistic, but the immature banter made me cringe.

Connor Green: ‘Have you got happiness?’
Me: ‘Yes.’
Connor Green: ‘But are you really sure?’
Me: ‘I think so.’ He kept asking me if I had happiness. He wouldn’t stop. In the end it just vexed me. Then I wasn’t sure. Connor Green was laughing, I didn’t even know why. Then Manik told me it was a trick.
Manik: ‘He’s not asking if you’ve got happiness, he’s asking if you’ve got a penis. He says it to everyone. It’s just a trick.’
It only sounds like happiness but really it means a penis.
Connor Green: ‘Got ya! Hook, line and sinker!’
Connor Green is always making tricks. He’s just a confusionist. That’s the first thing you learn about him. At least I didn’t lose. I do have a penis. The trick doesn’t work if it’s true.

I’m afraid that the book went even further downhill with the introduction of the talking pigeon. I’m sure that fans of magical realism will love this touch, but I’m afraid that it didn’t work for me.

Pigeon English is a realistic portrayal of a confused young boy learning to live in a new country. It’s an original take on the usual tales of immigration and I loved some of the comic elements, but I’m afraid that the negatives outweighed the positives on this occasion.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a decent, contemporary and original report on innocence and its loss. Asylum

…as the story advanced it became more confused, and it became difficult to pick out the important things from the more mundane. Fleur Fisher in her World

I just found it unrealistic for him to be so repetitive, simple-minded and was often frustrated by the lack of direction in the story. Monniblog

21 replies on “Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman”

Ellie, I have enjoyed a lot of books with child narrators, so that doesn’t put me off – it is immigration stories that I’m bored of at the moment!

I guess it was bad timing for this one, as Room was so genius. As for the 11 year old banter, no thanks. I get plenty of that in my day-to-day life (actually I think my son acts like a 30 year old in an 11 year old’s skin, but still). I’m proud that you finished this!

Sandy, I’m not sure why I actually finished it. It was quite short so I guess I wasn’t losing much time in completing it and I was intrigued as to how it would end.

I’m not looking forward to my boys getting to the teenage banter – they are still at the cute 5-year-old stage 🙂 Perhaps I would enjoy this book more if my boys were at this stage? Guess I’ll have to re-read it in 5 years!

“I’m afraid that the book went even further downhill with the introduction of the talking pigeon.” OK, I can tell this one is definitely not to my taste! Hope your next book is a better one, Jackie.

I didn’t care for the child narrator in Room (five is perhaps a bit too young for me), but I have enjoyed other young narrators like Huck Finn, Marcus from About A Boy, and Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. And I do like magical realism, but I’m still not sure this would be a good fit for me. The “play-like” narrative would probably annoy me too.

Steph, I have loved a lot of child narrators too. My favourites are Room, Curious Incident, Black Swan Green and What Was Lost. I think I need my narrators to be good, clean spoken children – I hated The Stars in the Bright Sky for their imature banter too. 🙁

Nancy, Talking animals can work for me (I loved Dunction Wood!) but this was just a bit odd. I’ll be interested to know if you feel the same way.

It’ss be interestin to read this one, I downloaded it on a whim onto my kindle in their sale as it was only £1.49. I coped well with the magical realism in Midnights Children but I have hated it in other books.

I was wondering when you were going to post your review of this. I guess I was wrong to tell you to carry on.

I didn’t mind the talking pigeon, I imagined it was a bit like Harri’s way of talking to God, but I do think we didn’t like a lot of the same things.

Lucybird, The talking pigeon wasn’t my major problem with this book, it was more that his dialogue that began to grate on me. I am glad I finished it in some ways, so don’t worry about telling me to carry on 🙂

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