Pigeon English: A Novel by Stephen Kelman (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 288 pp)

Stephen Kelman was born in Luton in 1976. Pigeon English, his first novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Desmond Elliot Prize, and the Guardian First Book Award. He lives in St. Albans.

Existential Fears of Parenthood

There’s a list of Oscar-nominated films piling up in the queue. The reasons are many. We work; we try to make dinner; scarcely a minute passes without the air molecules punctured from another exhort: “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Look at me!”

Down the list of reasons for which we tend not to watch movies exists a fear. Put differently, many films place children in perilous circumstances. While such plotting offers narrative sense, it ruptures the parental brain. A child suffering, fearful, or alone distresses the heart more than any horror, gore, or suspense would ever do.

Empathy emerges in parenthood; you can’t help it. For years, your child relies on you for EVERYTHING. It changes you to the point where you zealously guard your child’s experiences.

For example, recently, we streamed Moana on Netflix and my boy didn’t want to finish it. Too scary. Such realizations compel you to think ahead. To try and shield your children from any questionable imagery.

Given my experiences with my son, the central narrative of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English breaks my heart.

Boyhood Observations

Harrison, an eleven-year-old boy and Ghanaian transplant living in the London projects, sees a dead body. A young boy stabbed to death outside a fast-food joint.

“The dead boy’s mamma was guarding the blood. She wanted it to stay, you could tell. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away but she wouldn’t let it. She wasn’t even crying, she was just stiff and fierce like it was her job to scare the rain back up into the sky. A pigeon was looking for his chop. He walked in the blood. He was even sad as well, you could tell where his eyes were all pink and dead” (3).

Harrison reacts with surprise when the police announce no leads and the case runs cold. For this reason, Harrison decides to engage in his own detective casework.

“I put all the sellotaptes with the fingerprints on in my special hiding place with my alligator tooth. I folded them up in paper so they don’t get any dirt or hairs on them. My room is now my headquarters. Nobody’s allowed in without the password and I haven’t even told anybody what the password is (it’s pigeon, after my pigeon. Nobody else can find out if you only think it)” (136).

A Boy and a Pigeon against the World

Told in Harrison’s point of view, Pigeon English depicts a boy caught between childhood and adolescence. On the one hand, Harrison desires social assimilation and acceptance from X-Fire, the local gang leader.

“Mamma: ‘Who is Marcus Johnson?’
Lydia: ‘He’s in Year 11. He thinks he’s the ironboy. They get the younger ones to do tricks for them. They have them all running around. It’s very sad. He calls himself X-Fire.’
Me: ‘It’s not X-Fire, fool. It only looks like X-Fire when he paints it on the wall.’
Lydia: ‘Whatever. It’s still sad’” (96).

On the other hand, Harrison lives with a vivid imagination, befriending a pigeon living outside the window of his apartment tower.

“I put my alligator tooth down the rubbish pipe. I heard it fall down to the bottom and disappear. It was an offering for the volcano god. It was a present for God himself. If I gave him my best good luck then he’d save us from all the bad things, the sickness and chooking and dead babies, he’d bring us all back together again. He’d have to or it wouldn’t be fair. It was a good swap, nobody could say it wasn’t. I knew it would work. Thank you pigeon for showing me the right star” (193)!

Unable to comprehend the details of a teen culture he doesn’t understand, Harrison’s detective work puts him in hot water, creating the dramatic tension in Pigeon English‘s narrative.

Coming of Age in a Rough Part of Town

Possessing prose stylistically rough around the edges—to illustrate a boy’s point of view, Pigeon English raises the stress levels. In Harrison, I see my own son. I imagine how a dead body might give him nightmares. I fret the many social circumstances he must navigate—the bullies and the loss of friends. It scares me.

With Pigeon English, Kelman adds a socioeconomic layer to the story, further ratcheting the tension. Pigeon English will stick with me, but it’s hard to give it a definitive recommendation.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5



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