Speaking Pigeon English

Pigeon English

Pigeon English
Stephen Kelman

I keep seeing  Pigeon English  described, roughly, as the story of a young boy’s murder told from the perspective of an eleven year old boy, Harri. Initially, I started my review the same way. Then I realized that description isn’t all that accurate, and led me to expect something very different from what the book actually delivers.

So let’s start again. Pigeon English is about a young boy named Harri. Harri has recently emigrated from Ghana to London with his mother and older sister. His father, baby sister, and grandmother are still in Ghana, waiting to join the rest of the family. Harri is trying to figure out how to navigate this new world – learning the slang, making friends, fitting in, finding a girlfriend.

At times, Harri’s world is brutal. I mean, the story opens with a murder. Harri knew “the dead boy” as someone around the neighborhood, someone Harri wanted to be friends with, but never really got to know. Harri and his friend Dean decide that since the police don’t seem to be able to solve the case, they are going to investigate the murder, CSI style. They turn this into one of their many games, like jumping over puddles or acting like zombies. Of course, the stakes in this game are much higher.

At first, the dialect was a bit much. It took me probably 50 pages to figure out that “asweh” meant “I swear.” After a while I started to just go with it, since it seemed like a realistic portrayal of a young immigrant’s speech patterns (as far as I know, which isn’t very far). Harri’s language was jarring in other ways, too. His friends are incredibly homophobic, disablist, and misogynistic, and the language they use reflects this. This may be true to how kids talk and behave, but it was grating.

There are times when Harri’s sweet nature shines through. He remembers one time back in Ghana, when his mother was still pregnant with Agnes, his baby sister. He describes people hanging lanterns from their windows and fences during a blackout, making it look like stars all around. He tells Agnes:

“I fixed the stars for you! They’ll be waiting for you when you come out!”
Mamma: “Thank you, sweet thing!” (She did it in a tiny voice like it was Agnes who was talking.)

 One limitation of Harri’s point of view is that you are limited to brief snippets of what’s going on in the adult lives. I wanted to know more about the other characters. His mother is a nurse, and is having trouble at work. Aunt Sonia burns her fingertips to get rid of her prints so she can’t be deported.

One voice that did NOT work was the talking pigeon. Oooohhhhhhhhhhh, talking pigeon, please shut up! You are a pointless distraction.

Overall, this was a quick, decent read. Nothing remarkable, nothing awful. The Booker committee obviously liked it more than I did, as it was just shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Then again, I was not wild about any of the three longlisted titles I read, so maybe the Booker isn’t my cup of tea.


3 thoughts on “Speaking Pigeon English

  1. When I saw its inclusion in the shortlist, I was shocked. However, since I've not read any of the books and have heard some individuals praising this particular one, I shut up. I really want to know if the author,per chance, made a visit to Ghana before writing about the reminiscences of Harri.

  2. Pigeon English is my least favorite of the Booker list this year, and I was surprised when it made the shortlist. For some reason, the 'asweh' bugged me too because I could only hear Cartman from South Park saying it (why? I have no idea.)

  3. @Nana, I've only read a few of the Booker titles this year, but I haven't been all that impressed with any of them. I think I'll wait to read the winner, and see what I think after that.@nomadreader: The "hutious" bothered me even more than the "asweh." I couldn't figure out what it meant, so it was frustrating. I mean, I had a rough idea from the context, but I wasn't 100% sure.

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