I began this book with some trepidation, thinking I'd read another of Stephen Kelman's books and disliked it. (In fact I was confusing him with the Scottish author James Kelman, whose novel The Bus Conductor Hines was so peppered with Glaswegian slang and profanity that it was quite possibly more unpleasant to read than it would be to work as a bus conductor in Glasgow.)
But no, this is Englishman Stephen Kelman, and Pigeon English is his debut novel. I loved it, as did the Man Booker Prize committee members, as they voted the book onto their short list in 2011.
The narrator is 11 year-old Harrison Opoku, who has come to urban England from Ghana with his mother and older sister, Lydia. Asweh, but this boy is lovable! He loves most people, especially his baby sister (still in Ghana with their father), and his pretty blonde schoolmate Poppy (which he indicated in his reply when she passed him a note saying, "Do you like me?" with Yes and No check-boxes for his convenience). He loves certain trees, and pigeons, most notably the one with whom he converses when he's sneaking food out onto the balcony for it. The pigeon reciprocates by keeping an eye on Harrison as he navigates the perils of his neighbourhood, which include gangs of toughs. When another youngster is found stabbed to death, Harrison and his friend Jordan set to work as amateur detectives, gathering evidence to help solve the crime.
As I made my way into this novel, I felt the sort of trepidation one might feel watching a young gymnast on the balance beam, alternately wondering what she might do next and praying she doesn't fall on her face. I wondered, would Kelman try a double back-flip and lapse into a saccharine-sweet childhood memoir, or would he attempt an aerial walkover and write Harrison into a black bog of urban violence and hopelessness? To my enormous relief, he pulled it off, staying well away from both twee and dismal.
I don't remember what it's like to be 11, but Stephen Kelman obviously does. Harrison is proud to be the "second fastest boy" in his school, and he's keenly aware of his footwear, drawing some Adidas stripes on his no-name athletic shoes with magic markers, to the derision of his mates. He quickly picks up on the cultural mores in his new land and rattles off a litany of facts he's acquired.
Some rules I have learned from my new school: No running on the stairs. No singing in class. Always put your hand up before you ask a question. Don't swallow the gum or it will get stuck in your guts and you'll die. Jumping in the puddle means you're a retard (I don't even agree with this one). Going around the puddle means you're a girl. The last one in close the door. The first one to answer the question loves the teacher. If a girl looks at you three times in a row it means she loves you. If you look at her back you love her. He who smelt it dealt it. He who denied it supplied it. He who sensed it dispensed it. He who knew it blew it. He who noted it floated it. He who declared it aired it. He who spoke it broke it. He who exposed it composed it. He who blamed it flamed it. (All these are just for farts.) If you look at the back of a mirror you'll see the devil. Don't eat the soup. The dinner ladies pissed in it. Don't lend Ross Kelly your pen. He picks his arse klinkers with it. Keep to the left (everywhere). The right is out of bounds. The library stairs are safe. If he wears a pinky ring he's a gay (a pinky ring is a ring on your little finger). If she wears a bracelet on her ankle she's a lesbian (shags it up with other ladies). There are more but my memory ran out.Harrison struggles to make sense of his older sister's teen-aged friends, and through his eyes we see Lydia also trying to find her way in this strange new place. Their aunt is involved with a shady, violent man; she frequently bumps her face into cabinet doors or breaks her leg when stumbling. Harrison, however, keeps himself busy gathering evidence -- fingerprints on adhesive tape, for example -- to solve the murder, always confident that he can outsmart or outrun the evil. The gangs, however, are omnipresent, and although Harrison tries to give them a wide berth, he can't always avoid them entirely. Calling him simply "Ghana", the older boys challenge him to join them in petty (and not so petty crimes), and they make it clear that he's failed a test by running away from the scene when they assault the pastor of his family's church.
Harrison is at a magical age: He is a good boy, still untainted by the ugliness around him. He has the whimsical imagination of a child, marvelling at the mysterious and stupid things that adults do as he pieces together his world view. In his science class, Harrison suggests that a volcano is Hell incarnate, which triggers a meditation on metaphysics for 11 year-olds.
Me: "But really it's Hell down there, isn't it sir." Mr Carroll: "That's an interesting theory. It's definitely as hot as hell, that's for sure." Everybody was laughing at me. They don't believe in Hell around here. Asweh, they're in for a nasty surprise! They're going to get burned up like human toast! In the early times they thought a fire god lived inside the volcano. He'd only stop throwing fire at them if they threw a virgin in the volcano for the god to eat. They thought there was a different god in everything. They thought there was a sky god and a tree god and a volcano god and a sea god. All their gods were angry all the time. They had to keep feeding them or they'd destroy them. The sea god would make a flood or the sky god would rain lightning on you or the tree god would fall on your house. They were always going to destroy you unless you fed them with virgins. Asweh, early-times people were very stupid. A virgin is a lady who isn't married yet. They'e prized because they're so rare. Only the gods can eat them. Married ladies gave them the shits. Everybody agreed.Kelman so completely reverted to the mindset of an 11 year-old that he gives no hint of typical adult reaction to events. Harrison looks at the violence around him with curiosity and perhaps only a slight tinge of fear. And his trusty pigeon consoles him: "Thank you. I like you too, I always did. There's nothing to be scared of."