Book Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Eleven year old Harrie is new to London. He, his mother and his sister have come from Ghana and are living on the 9th floor of a tower block in London.  Harrie is also the fastest runner in his year. Harrie’s life in London is very different to the life he had in Ghana where his father and little sister are still living. We are introduced to Harrie at the scene of ‘the dead boy’ .  The boy has been stabbed and Harrie and his friend Jordan decide they need to investigate this and find our who did it.  They take their role seriously believing they can solve this mystery and present their evidence to the police.

This story is told through the voice and eyes of Harrie and through him we are opened to the struggles and excitement associated with adapting to a new school, new life, new culture and new friends.  Harrie’s voice is one I enjoyed.  His naivety and earnestness captures the innocence of childhood.  It is particularly powerful because of the environment in which he finds himself.  A world where carrying a knife is normal, and fear and the need to dominate prevail.  Harrie is anxious to fit in but somehow manages to maintain his individuality despite the pressures of gang culture.  This is perhaps seen in the relationship Harrie has with a pigeon.  I know, it sounds strange, but I thought it worked.  This added almost magical dimension brought a part of the Africa Harrie had left behind to inner city London and to Harrie’s internal world.

Harrie has a love hate relationship with his sister, but ultimately they look out for each other and when it really counts they  protect each other.

“She ran to Mamma’s room and shut the door in my face.  I could hear her crying behind the door.  It felt crazy.  I wanted to turn the crying off but she had to  learn her lesson. Doing something bad on purpose is worse than doing it by mistake.  You can mend a mistake but on purpose doesn’t just break you, it breaks the whole world bit by bit like the scissors on the rock.  I didn’t want to be the one who broke the whole world”

Harrie’s mother is mid wife and spends many hours working at the hospital.  She too lives under threat, the threat of her sisters partner who has clearly had a part in enabling them to live be in London.  This is a world where violence is constantly lurking.

Despite on occasion reading this in some fear of what would happen next, particularly  to Harrie there is so much to enjoy.  It is a heady mix of truth, reality, mystery and magic with an engaging  and believable cast of characters.  This is one I recommend.

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