Thursday, December 29, 2011

A fresh, original voice debuts in Pigeon English

Book 131:  Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English, short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize, introduces a lively and original voice in author Stephen Kelman.

The novel is narrated by 11-year-old Harri Opoku, who, along with his mother and sister, recent emigrated from Ghana to England. They live in a flat on the ninth floor of an inner city housing estate.

Harri's voice is unique and captivating. Kelman captures his 11-year-old bravado; Harri is alternately timid and bold, boastful and modest.  (He assures us that he's among the fastest runner in Year 7).  

A particularly fine touch is the way Kelman reflects Harri's understanding of the English language. The meaning of some phrases and slang completely elude him, while he quickly embraces the complexities of other street lingo.

Kelman captures, too, the push and pull of societal pressures that places temptation in Harri's path. His desire to be a good boy and to please his hard-working mother is balanced against his desire for acceptance by the local ring of adolescent thugs.  

Harri is at once naive, yet wise.  Like most 11-year-olds he does not yet know what he doesn't know, a condition that makes him vulnerable to dangers he does not even suspect exist.

The novel draws its dramatic intensity from the discovery of a student's body early in the story. Harri and a classmate are determined to solve the murder.  Initially, their efforts are comic as they mimic the language and methods of television's CSI. But Harri's investigation has not gone unnoticed and the comic aspect soon takes a serious turn.

Kelman makes only one misstep in Pigeon English.  There are a few isolated passages when he breaks away from Harri's narration to tell the story through the voice of a pigeon.  It is an unfortunate decision on Kelman's part. Clumsy and ineffective, those brief passages only distract from the power of Harri's voice.

It's easy to forgive such a misstep -- Pigeon English is Kelman's first novel. All things considered, it is a strong debut by a fresh and original voice. 

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