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Pigeon English

by Stephen Kelman

Harri Opoku has just moved from Ghana onto Dell Farm estate in London and finds his new world curious enough to warrant constant commentary and enquiry. Through Harri’s wide eyes, the reader is immediately immersed into the aftermath of a young boy’s murder and the narrator’s subsequent investigation to find the killer.

When Pigeon English was nominated for the Booker prize in 2011, the shortlist was accused of being lowbrow and Jeanette Winterson urged readers and judges alike to ‘harden up’ to the challenges of literature. However, she also wrote that ‘Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.’

Pigeon English proves that readability does to equate to meaningless accessibility. It is a desperately language-based novel, as its punning title suggests, and Kelman’s eponymous hero is a creolized language that pulls and twists the bounds of the literary novel.

In fact the very pun of the title acts as an insight into the message of the work as a whole – a mixed language is more adaptable, more malleable and more fitting to the unfixed world of childhood than traditional or canonical prose. The pigeon is a metaphor and a conundrum, perceived to be vermin yet issuing some of the wisest comments in the novel. The feral bird’s italicized interruptions balance Harri’s wonder and worries with the world-weary advice that we are all ‘One of an endless number. If only you’d just accept it, things would be so much easier. Say it with me: I am a drop in the ocean. I am neighbour, nation, north and nowhere. I am one among many and we all fall together. Or maybe I’m just a rat with wings and I don’t know what I’m talking about.’

This is Stephen Kelman’s first novel and it is largely influenced by his own childhood on a Luton council estate and by the case of Damilola Taylor.

As well as being shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Pigeon English was shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize 2011, short-listed for 2011 Guardian First Book Award and due to be adapted for a BBC dramatisation.

Bloomsbury, 288pp.

Eve Lacey

Read our interview with Stephen Kelman.

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