Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman, 2011, House of Anansi Press

With his first novel, Stephen Kelman demonstrates his story-telling talent, bringing to life a young boy who is one of the most lovable characters I have come across in a long time.

Harrison Opoku lives in London with his mother and older sister Lydia, while the rest of his family remain in Ghana for now. From the perspective of an eleven-year-old trying to learn the language and customs of a new country, the world is a bit of a scary place. But there are things he must learn if he wants to fit in, or even survive.

Inner-city life is far removed from Ghana, but Hari is learning to navigate its byways. How many of us remember what it is like to be that young, that primal, so innocent and fresh? At the same time aware of violence and danger that appear at any moment. When Lydia is getting her hair straightened by a friend one afternoon, Hari watches and Lydia admires herself in the mirror. Suddenly,

Miquita’s face went all hard… “Are you with us?” … Miquita was making the iron go near then pulling it away like a crazy game … Lydia closed her eyes … “I’m with you, I’m with you.” Lydia opened her eyes … there was one tiny patch on her cheek gone shiny and red … “Just keep still, I don’t wanna hurt you. You shouldn’t have moved.” Lydia: “Sorry.” I got my breath back. The world woke up again. When Lydia’s hair was finished it actually looked bo-styles. (pp. 140-141)

With this passage we see how easily an ordinary pastime can shift from playful innocence to deadly seriousness in an instant. Lydia suffers one tiny burn to remind her of this episode and the very real possibility of extreme harm. Then, we shift back to normal, admiring how beautifully her hair turned out, and everyone is friendly again, as though nothing had happened.But we are reminded that the underlying danger is a constant thing and can surface at any moment.

Does Hari learn the language and codes necessary to get along in this new and threatening place? Does his “pidgin English” eventually transform into a language of survival? For the moment Hari combines the vernacular of his peers, filled with British slang, with Ghanaian terms and some of his own making. This gives Hari a unique, fresh voice, and we feel that we are truly hearing this child tell his story in his own words.

He is a beautiful spirit who feels the need to do good things, whether something tiny, like making his sister smile to “save the day” or something much larger, like tracking down the murderer of a young boy. We see his great love for his family, particularly his younger sister, Agnes, and the sacrifices he is willing to make for them; we see his curiosity about the world; we see his bravery in trying to identify the killer and in his refusal to submit to the local gang; and his attachment to his “own” special pigeon is endearing. In short, we learn to love him. But be careful, for he may break your heart.

1 comment:

  1. I'm about half way through and enjoying Pigeon English very much. Did it remind you at all of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha? I'm seeming some similarities.... Quite an accomplished first novel though, I must say.