Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pigeon English

Rereading books I loved as a kid is something I do on a semi-regular basis. The way YA novels age is interesting, and all the characters' actions and predicaments take on a whole new context. It's also a kind of escapism, to remember what it felt like to read the story five or ten or fifteen years ago. Reading books about children, but not for children, on the other hand, is an interesting experience in a different way. Obviously, we were all children once, so the author can pull from his or her memories when constructing the voice of their character, but if they don't get it quite ring, it can sound too precious or too precocious – like an adult speaking through a child. Those pitfalls are what make Harri's voice in Pigeon English so astounding. 

I'm not sure what reservoir of knowledge or experience Stephen Kelman tapped into to write the novel, but right from the get-go, Pigeon English floored me. Harri is a Ghanaian boy (11 years old) who has recently moved to London, England, with his mother and old sister Lydia. His father, grandmother, and baby sister Agnes are still in Ghana, waiting to raise enough money to join the rest of the family. The reasons for leaving aren't made explicitly clear, but it seems driven by a mother's desire to give her children a better life. They live in an apartment building in a rough part of town, and because their mother is a nurse and working shifts, Harri and Lydia are frequently on their own.

The entire novel is told from Harri's perspective, in his voice. Just by listening – and really, this is a novel  that is more about listening than reading – to the way he uses London slang all mixed in with his Ghanaian expressions tells you how new he is to the country. Sometimes he even lists all the new words he's learned, with explanations of what they mean. This novel is about being completely in Harri's world, and that perspective is so complete and consuming that, like Harry, the very real danger presented by the neighbourhood seems at arm's length – dangerous to others, but not to you. 

Besides tell the story of Harri and his family's first while in London, the novel has another, more pulsing plot line. At the beginning of the story, a boy has been stabbed to death in the neighbourhood. Harri new the boy, although he was older, and after it seems clear that no one feels safe telling the police anything, Harri and his friend Dean decide to become detectives on the sly. They start by collecting fingerprints of people they know using Scotch tape and keeping surveillance for suspicious-looking people. It all seems like a game, really, just a way to pass the time, until they find a wallet with a picture of the dead boy inside. Events spiral from there, but Harri isn't really paying attention, so he doesn't notice when the stakes of the game get changed.

Harri's voice is so utterly convincing that this entire novel reads as though he is talking to you. His use of language is kind of funny to read sometimes, but Kelman knows how to use slang the way a newcomer does, and he seems to really understand the kinds of details that preoccupy a kid. There are lots of things that Harri doesn't notice, and as a reader, like Harri, you don't realize that until it's too late. The end of the novel is so jarring – I read the last page, turned it, expecting more, and only found the glossary – because you become so embedded in Harri that it's hard to let go. Reading Pigeon English opens a door to a place you may never go to or think about otherwise, but with a guide like Harri, there's no excuse not to go.

Pigeon English
by Stephen Kelman
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

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