The Price of Innocence

This is my review of Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman.

I avoided this novel for a while, fearing it might be exploitative of the recent Damilola Taylor tragedy, another example of truth being more searing than fiction. I have now read it for a book group, with an eye to deciding where I stand on the controversy over its shortlisting for the Man Booker.

As far as I can tell, Stephen Kelman makes a good job of getting into the mind of Harrison Opoku an inquisitive, impressionable, well-intentioned but vulnerable eleven-year-old boy uprooted from Ghana and thrown into the life of a tough inner London suburb, complete with grafittied tower blocks, menacing teenage street gangs and comprehensives ineffectual in the face of dysfunctional youth culture.

Harrison is both shocked and fascinated by the police crime scene marking the fatal stabbing of a boy at his school. As clues about the identity of the killer begin to emerge, Harrison naively sets about playing the part of a juvenile detective, unaware of the fact that many people already know or suspect who the attacker is, but are too scared to say anything.

Harrison's take on the world is by turns both very funny and poignant. I enjoyed his sparky exchanges with his sister. His frequent forgivable misreadings of situations alternate with some astute observations of the grim urban world which is "the norm" for too many children. An innocent "clean slate", he is singing hymns in church one minute, hanging out with an alcoholic thief and longing to own his dangerous dog "Asbo" the next, never seeing the incongruity of this. As teenage gang members bully and goad him to prove himself prepared to break the law, we fear he will be sucked into their sick world of knives, guns and gratuitous violence, but a basic decency always seems to return him to a better path – we even see him maturing a little from his experiences as the book builds to a possibly unexpected but on reflection inevitable conclusion.

Like some other readers, I was quite irritated by the occasional but increasingly frequent appearance of the philosophising italics-using pigeon who seems invested with some kind of all-knowing spirit. The little pictures of signs, and double page spread of T-shirt slogans are a little too gimmicky.

A more serious reservation is that I am unsure how authentically Ghanaian Harrison's language is, and I agree that many of the other characters are caricatures, and there could have been more backstory about Harri's family, which could have been skilfully implied in his account of various scenes.

I do not mind that the story proceeds in a series of disjointed episodes, since overall they carry the story forward to a finale which leaves a few loose ends on which readers are left to speculate.

This often feels like a book for teenagers rather than adults. It would make a powerful tool for raising awareness through class discussion, although the frequent swearing would probably get it banned for this purpose. However, I am not convinced it has the quality of prose, or originality to deserve a Booker-type award.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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