Pigeon English started out just all right. Eleven year old Harrison Opoku immigrates to London from Ghana with his mother and older sister. A boy gets murdered, and no one comes forward with any information, so Harri decides to conduct his own investigation. The cover shows a blurb from Room author Emma Donoghue, calling Pigeon English Harri’s “love letter to the world,” and saying it made her “laugh and tremble all the way through.”
So when I began the book, I expected an utterly delightful narrator, who, like Flavia de Luce, turns all Hardy Boys when a mystery arrives. I was wrong. Harri definitely has charm – for example, his complete confidence that you can get a “fugly” girl pregnant just by looking at her, or the utter joy he feels when he closes his eyes and runs in the rain. However, Pigeon English is by no means a cheerful book. It can make you laugh in the way that Donoghue’s Room can make you laugh – with a tinge of sadness, because the child narrator (Jack in Room, Harri in Pigeon) notices things he finds funny, only our more adult perception tells us there’s really something more sinister going on in the subtext. Harri being eleven adds to this emotional pull, because, unlike Jack, he’s caught between the innocence of childhood and the knowledge of teenagers, and he understands more about his surroundings than he wants to.
Kelman also has a clear love for language, and peppers the novel with slang (e.g. Asweh, bo-sticks). There’s a glossary included at the end of the book, but I’d advise you not to look at it – it’s easy enough to understand the terms through the context, and I actually enjoyed not knowing the exact English translation of some of the words. It helped me immerse myself in the cadence of Harri’s speech, and just lose myself in the book. Every once in a while, Harri explained English terms – “In England there’s a hell of different words for everything. It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left over.” I was immediately wary that this would just make Harri too cutesy, but I ended up enjoying these commentaries. Harri’s confidence in lecturing me about English is an endearing look at his pride in learning the local slang, and is a beautiful reminder of his youth.
That being said, I did have some minor issues. First, and most annoying to me, is the speeches from the pigeon on Harri’s balcony. I’d be completely immersed in Harri’s world, then I get an italicized paragraph sounding like the voice of God, being protective and nurturing. More likely, it was meant to be the voice of Harri’s father, who is still in Ghana, leaving Harri the official man of the house. So I can imagine Harri finding comfort in the pigeon being a father figure presence. I can even imagine the pigeon being an actual guardian angel, who comments on its own helplessness in its attempt to protect Harri from his neighbourhood. I just didn’t like it. The story has enough complexity on its own, without adding such heavy handed symbolism. Another, minor one really, is whenever Harri calls the pigeon “lovely.” While it’s possible that an eleven year old boy uses “lovely” in everyday speech, it felt too much like Harri had suddenly transformed into an elderly English lady. As with the pigeon speeches, it felt too much like Kelman wanting his novel to sound beautiful, and I just didn’t like it.
I’d said earlier that Pigeon started out just all right. For the first part of the book, I mostly thought that Kelman is a good writer, and Harri is likable enough, but I didn’t feel much of an emotional connection. That’s probably because I was still in mystery book mode, and I kept wondering when Harri would make actual progress in his investigation. Then I realized the book wasn’t about the mystery at all. It’s about Harri’s struggle to control an uncontrollable situation. His neighbourhood reminds me of the film Neds, but Harri is even more helpless than the protagonist of Neds in his attempt, first to steer clear of the Dell Farm Crew gang, then when forced into it, to stand up to them. Harri, his friend Dean, and his sister Lydia are all in over their heads, and it’s almost painful to see their attempts to regain control. Control, ultimately, is what Harri’s murder investigation is about – he takes fingerprints using sellotape, watches people through camouflage binoculars from a fair, and collects saliva for DNA samples with no concrete plan beyond taking this evidence to the police. When he comes close to solving the case, and someone comes up with a false lead, Harri confesses his wish that the false lead were true, because if his current line of investigation is correct, it would be “too real.” Harri also says he prefers superheroes like Spiderman, who aren’t born with their superpowers, because it means all Harri has to do is find a radioactive spider and he can get superpowers too. It’s simply heartbreaking, because we know Harri won’t ever become a superhero, and also because we know that, deep down, Harri is old enough to know he won’t ever get superpowers either.
I finished the book moved by Harri’s courage. I was impressed by his tireless attempts to defy the odds and bring a murderer to justice, and saddened by his futile attempts to gain a superpower. Mostly, however, I was touched by all the normal childhood experiences he had – falling in love with a girl named Poppy (they carved their initials on their desks to make it official), wanting to practice with his sister’s friend before kissing Poppy, drawing Adidas stripes on his unbranded trainers with black marker. The tenderness in these moments just contrasted so sharply with the violence in the background that I just wanted Harri to experience more of these moments. It starts off a bit slow, despite the book opening with a murder, but it ends with quite an impact. Pigeon English is a beautiful story of a boy struggling to hold on to his innocence while being forced to experience so much more than he can handle.