Stephen Kelman’s Man Booker-longlisted debut novel, Pigeon English, centres on Harrison “Harri” Opoku, an 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant who lives on a council estate in South London.
The novel’s world, of high-rise grime, crime and violence, seems especially inkeeping with the zeitgeist following the recent London riots. The BBC has also commissioned an adaptation of the novel, to be directed by Adam Smith, of Skins fame.
It’s perhaps an ironic choice, given that the novel suffers many similar misgivings to the “edgy” TV show that was so in vogue with teenagers a few years ago. Viewing the world of a child from an adult perspective is fraught with difficulties – especially when the content revolves around sex, drugs, violence and other teenage issues so often hyperbolically inflated by tabloid newspapers (not to mention TV shows like Skins itself), which merely serves to perpetuate a redundant “them and us” divide between wider society and its inheritors: the youth. One which, of course, the recent riots sustained.
Child narrators are often dangerous territory – when it works (think Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, or Michael Frayn’s Spies), it’s compelling, refreshing and often ravishingly funny. However, the pitfalls are great, and this seems Pigeon English’s undoing. Harri’s narrative voice is scattered with patois and slang, a multicultural mish-mash of his Ghanaian roots (which are tentatively touched upon, but never fully fleshed-out) and south London vernacular. While it’s a refreshing change of pace – especially for a Booker nominee – the dialect is often erratic, occasionally tedious and feels forced.
However, Pigeon English is brilliant in parts. Harri’s teenage pre-occupations – his infatuation with Poppy Morgan, clumsy misunderstanding of sexual vocabulary and questioning whether the latest Nike trainers make his classmates run faster (rioters: take note) – all are beautifully conveyed, teased out with subtlety which belies his debutant status. Harri, along with his friend Dean, turn detective after an older boy is stabbed outside of a chicken shop. Scouring the estate for clues, Harri becomes increasingly involved with the menacing Dell Farm Crew, a gang who loom large over the housing estate. His mother and sister are increasingly implicated in events, as the drama unfolds, reaching a gripping climax.
Pigeon English is, unquestionably, an exceptional debut. It may go one further and make the Booker’s six-strong shortlist, but to my mind, it would be a surprise winner.