I love it when it happens and usually, it’s never when I expect it. I just walk into the nearby Indigo bookstore, scan the new books and it happens; I see a book I love or that I think I would love and, budget permitting, buy it. This time, it was Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, “Pigeon English.”
At this point, I must confess: I bought that book strictly off the strength of its cover. But, I’m thankful I did. Indeed, it seems like whoever said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover was wrong. Take “Pigeon English” for example: strong cover page, stronger content.
But more on that in a little while.
First, let me tell you that my favourite novel is Romain Gary’s “La vie devant soi”— Romain Gary’s “The Life Before Us” for the English readers. Published under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, “La vie devant soi” is one of Gary’s finest novels and won the Prix Goncourt in 1975. It tells the touching tale of Momo, a young orphan who lives with the only person who seems to care about him, 68-year-old Madame Rosa. It is a sensitive story of devotion told through Momo’s eyes and, especially, words. This is what makes “La vie devant soi” truly special: the simple, sometimes comical, but always matter-of-factly experience of a young child.
In this sense, “Pigeon English” is right up my alley. It tells a similar tale, that of 11-year-old Harrison Opoku, or Harri. Young Harri is from Ghana and has just moved to London with his ‘Mamma’ and older sister Lydia; his dad, baby sister Agnes and grandmother are supposed to join them soon enough. In “Pigeon English,” young Harri tells his story. And that story is one of honesty, of purpose and, sadly, of murder — that’s where the book starts, when a young boy is found dead, apparently stabbed to death.
Children can make sense of complicated things in a very simple manner, and Harri is no exception; in that way, he is your typical 11-year-old. At times, he is capable of moments of brilliance and wisdom beyond his age. Yet, for every one of those moments, he has others that remind us he still is nothing but a kid. Indeed, though Harri lives in a dangerous neighbourhood and shares his daily life with a ton of shady characters, he is oblivious to it. In his world, there’s not much place for violence and hatred. Ask him if he has a favourite gun, and he’ll tell you it’s “a supersoaker.”
Harri is a compelling character for many reasons. To him, life is a big game. Throw a rock at the bus that hits it anywhere, you get 10 points; hit the bus’s window, you get 50 points. But much like Drew Carey’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the points don’t matter; just that it’s a game matters enough. Plus, when the young boy is found dead Harri and his friend Dean decide to further their own investigation, drawing on Dean’s knowledge of CIS practices. Police has offered a reward for information that would lead to catching the young boy’s killer and, for Harri, that could help bring the rest of his family to London. And he probably could buy a proper football, too, “made of skin that doesn’t fly away.” When school is about to break for the summer, Harri and three classmates make a spell: “If we don’t step on any cracks for the rest of the term, then the holidays will be sunny every day and we won’t get any homework.” When you’re young like Harri, life is simple enough.
Then, Harri can make sense of anything even when – and perhaps especially when – it doesn’t make sense. In his world, everything happens for a reason. Perhaps not the right reason, but for a reason that makes sense in Harri’s mind. For example, he is annoyed that his ‘Mamma’ works at nights. “Why can’t babies just be born in the daytime,” he says more than asks. That way, Harri could see his ‘Mamma’ after school. “It’s not even fair.”
Though told from a child’s perspective, “Pigeon English” is definitely not a children’s book. Harri doesn’t shy away from the adult themes of life, love and death. When his younger sister Agnes comes down with a fever at some point, Harri’s reaction is to worry, obviously. “If Agnes dies I’ll just swap places with her. She can have my life.” His logic is that at 11 years old, he has lived plenty enough unlike Agnes who’s just a little past her first birthday. “Anybody can die, even a baby.”
One of the most touching scenes of the novel is when Harri and his girlfriend Poppy say goodbye on the last day of school before summer. Harri wants to tell Poppy how much he loves her, but he can’t. “It felt too big. Even the word.” Every time you tell someone you love him or her, it’s a risk, because you just might have to take it back or regret it later. Harri understands that. “It felt too big and stupid to say it now. I had to keep it in my belly for later.”
Perhaps the only negative to “Pigeon English” is the odd passage where Harri’s pigeon (whom he befriended early on) addresses the reader. The tone of the writing changes, becomes boastful and serves as lectures on larger society. Yet, I don’t think it works.
In the end, “Pigeon English” is a great novel, because it stays authentic to the experience of an 11-year-old. Such a child would not be aware of the social forces explaining how a kid is killed and so, “Pigeon English” puts those forces to the backdrop of its tale. In the end, “Pigeon English” is a great novel, because Harri is wise beyond his years. It only takes him one kiss from Poppy to realize that a man doesn’t need superpowers like he thought, only love.
Harri is a kind, honest and simple young boy trying his hardest to make sense of his new life. Much like all of us.