Pigeon English Paperback – 7 Mar 2011
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|Paperback, 7 Mar 2011||
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'Simultaneously accurate and fantastical, this boy's love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through. Pigeon English is a triumph' Emma Donoghue, author of Room
'A powerful and impressive novel ... Kelman knows the world of boys - their language, their humour, their thoughts - and Harri's voice is dazzlingly authentic. Utterly convincing and deeply moving, this is a book that we should all read' Clare Morrall, author of The Man Who Disappeared
'Pigeon English is a book to fall in love with: a funny book, a true book, a shattering book ... If you loved Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Emma Donoghue's Man Booker-shortlisted Room, you'll love this book too' Erica Wagner, The Times
'One of the hardest things in fiction is to write from a child's point of view - Kelman does it brilliantly' Alex Clark, Guardian
Deeply funny, moving, idiosyncratic and unforgettable, Pigeon English introduces a major new literary talentSee all Product description
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This is an amazing book, when I get into the classroom I will be recommending it for GCSE reading!
Like previous nominee Room by Emma Donoghue and Mark Haddon's Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, the novel is narrated by a child and Kelman manages to conjure a voice that feels genuine and authentic with his protagonist. Some of the lines that Harri and co come out with did make me laugh,and there are some great lines and anecdotes about the kind of banter and tall tales that go on between adolescent boys:
I also liked it when "Advise Yourself!" was used as a retort to a stupid statement, I think I'll be using that in future! However the use of Asweh, Ghanian slang for 'I swear' became so repetitious throughout Harri's narrative as to become profoundly irritating.
Essentially the strength of the book is its believability, that its characters could be real rather than a fabrication created by an author and the way in which Kelman succeeds in maintaining this voice. It is also a voice of a type of character and community very seldomly represented in literature, the African immigrant community of a London housing estate. However, within that believability comes a problem, listen to young boys too long and they become annoying, prattling inanely about Diadora trainers and Samsung Galaxy phones and Haribo sweets and Youtube and things that matter to boys of that age but are acutely irrelevant and tedious to adults. It occasionally feels like machine gun fire. As with The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, I feel that this book is better suited to the Young Adult market despite its declaration at the back of the book that it is an "adult novel". I think young adults would love this novel and take more away from it.
The investigations by Harri and his friend Dean into the death of the boy at the start of the novel seem silly and fall rather flat. Whereas the efforts of young people trying not to get sucked in to gang culture hold more realism. Although again, it seems more the realm of young adult fiction that our characters set an example rather than sink into the inevitability of a "crew".
I felt critically towards Emma Donoghue's Room on the basis that I felt it was exploitative of the Fritzl case and the Natascha Kampusch case, at the end of this novel the website of the Damilola Taylor Trust is mentioned but yet I did not find that the novel "traded" on any similarities, which is a good thing.
Aside from this there is the problem of the "psychic pigeon" whose inner voice we occasionally hear. The psychic pigeon is redundant and almost a bit embarrassing for a novel whose beauty lies in realism : seeing big social problems from a young childs perspective. Clearly its a play on the concept of "pidgeon english" but its ridiculousness cheapens the novel slightly or so I felt.
Despite its shortcomings the novel has an almighty end, a wallop of a conclusion. Which is tragic yet perfect within the context. I feel it is the ending that has earned it its Booker nomination. That and the choice of protagonist and style, although adult novels written in a child's voice are becoming less and less original and more and more a cliched idea of "clever". In my opinion anyway.
I think this book earned its nod of recognition, but I'm glad it didn't win.
Harri is fond of showing that he's learning the rules, creating lists to demonstrate he knows what's what, and desperately wants to be part of the in-crowd, turning his cheap trainers into Adidas lookalikes with a marker pen and talking the talk. The vocab he uses is spot on, reading the book was like listening to my teen step-daughter. However while he is fully aware of the gang activity going on around him and the dangers it presents he is still quite naive and too willing to believe everything he is told.
This really is a book of contrasts. While he has is being pulled into a very grown-up world he is still a child. A couple of phrases that appear repeatedly are that something was the funniest thing he ever saw, or that he'd bet a million pounds on x or y. It comes across as typical, childish exaggeration. While he is doing tasks to be accepted into the Dell Farm Crew, the local gang, he is also concerned for the pigeon he adopts and joins in superstitions like avoiding the cracks on the pavement to make sure something good happens.
Harri's family has been split, with his mother bringing him and his older sister Lydia to the UK, while his father and grandmother remain in Ghana with his baby sister. Harri dotes on his baby sister and is looking forward to them all being reunited. While his mother apparently brought her family over on a legitimate visa Auntie Sonia has less regard for the legalities required. Her boyfriend is a thug, but while Harri seems aware of what use he puts his baseball bat to it doesn't look to bother him. Unfortunately while Harri has plenty of hope he doesn't have enough fear and his forays into the bad wide world are threatening the safe home his mother has tried to establish for the family. Hearing some stories about life back in Ghana serves to further highlight the differences in the places and the communities.
I found Harri a very sweet character, a good kid who has been dropped into a threatening environment but still trying (mostly) to do the right thing. I was rooting for him and Lydia, who has found herself a poor example of a best friend, to get a happy ending. The parts narrated by the pigeon made for an interesting diversion, and its pieces were both funny, sweet and thoughtful, although in some places I did have to work to see how it fitted into the plot. It makes for a good picture of how life might be for a recent immigrant in a big and, initially, completely alien city.