Wednesday, 28 September 2011
Pigeon english - the modern world is brutal.
by Stephen Kelman
A timely and fascinating tale told with childish innocence and perception. Shortlisted for the Booker it is a debut novel of some note, relevant for its contemporary comment and for it's playful use of language and narrative. Set on an inner city estate in contemporary London, it explores the world in which childhood ends abruptly in face of the harsh realities of what is a fairly brutal modern life, where knife crime is a constant possibility. A good book but not perfect, what book ever is.
Narrated by Harri, eleven years old and newly arrived from Ghana, he tries to make sense of his new home and life. An astute observer, Harri is fascinated by the life around him from the gangs that operate on the estate, to the life of a pigeon that visits his balcony. When a boy is murdered on Harri's estate he and his friend Dean, (a crime show junkie), begin a naive investigation into the murder. The story is punctuated by the occasional brief aside from the pigeon that gives comment on the nature of life and human self delusion, from the pigeon: What your problem is, you all want to be the sea. But you're not the sea, you're just one raindrop. One of an endless number. If only you'd accept it, things would be so much easier...(p.210) The pigeon's asides can be a bit clunky, nevertheless, this is a book worthy of attention.
Harri's narration is at times joltingly colloquial but there is a kind of poetry to phrases like 'advise yourself' and words like 'hutious', as someone who has no real experience of Harri's world it is hard to judge the authenticity of his voice but it certainly sounds authentic and convincing. Harri's innocence is often captured in his confusion over phrases with sexual portent and Kelman has done well to keep Harri's endearing naivety in face of what is a fairly ugly world. Harri is one of those wonderful child narrators who speak with such authority and conviction they linger in the memory. They allow adult authors to make observation and comment that would otherwise sound hollow and absurd, but from a child sound insightful and powerful. I am thinking of characters like Scout in To kill a Mockingbird or for that matter Mina in David Almond's recent book My name is Mina, another great recent title with a memorable child narrator.
This certainly seems to be a timely tale, given recent events, certainly the London riots probably influenced my choice to read the novel as much as its presence on the Man Booker shortlist and I can't help but wonder if recent events did not influence it's inclusion on that shortlist. It certainly has a current relevancy which can't be overlooked, combined with it's strong narrative and the intrinsic humour in Harri's voice this is a great read.