In his 2009 novel Ten Storey Love Song, Richard Milward eschewed paragraphs and plots to tell the story of a block of council flats in Middlesborough. It was a demotic, at times disagreeable, book, but it was also thoroughly convincing. In one sense, it was a bawdy picaresque, a comic romp full of exaggerated characters and artificial situations; but in another, it so captured the voice and the vision of the council estate that it felt very much like a complete statement. By contrast, the London sink estate of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English – whilst more satisfying in terms of narrative, and less outre in terms of style – feels more like a parallel universe than Milward’s.
At breaktime I just play suicide bomber or zombies. Suicide bimber is when you run at the other person and crash them as hard as you can. If the other person falls over you get a hundred points. One person is always the lookout because suicide bomber is banned. If the teacher catches you playing you’ll get a detention.
Zombies is just acting like a zombie. You get points for accuracy. [pg. 13]
Kelman’s novel is narrated by eleven-year-old Harrison Opuku, recently arrived in the UK with his mother and sister from Ghana. He is transparently based on Damilola Taylor, the eleven-year-old schoolboy who was knifed to death on the steps of Peckham Library in 2000. Last year’s Booker shortlist featured Emma Donoghue’s Room, a novel based on the real life case of Josef Fritzl and his daughter, Elizabeth; this year’s shortlist has every chance of featuring another book which asks difficult questions of the wisdom in fictionalising the pain of a child. Still, Pigeon English is more topical even than that, since Harri’s narration is replete with the gangs and disenfranchised youths who have been blamed for the riots across England last month; this is, essentially, a novel about them.
Harri, like the narrator in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (although not quite so tenderly nor so charmingly), allows us glimpses of the truth of his world only sparingly, hidden behind his own inability to parse the goings-on around him. Of course, that he is from Ghana helps Kelman’s purpose here: he can create in Harri an almost preternaturally innocent, ill-informed character. Several times I wondered if a kid in Year 7 of an inner city highschool could really be so obtuse. Kelman can always use the foreigner abroad defense. Harri is obsessed with understanding how to live ‘properly’ in the UK – “I know all the rules now,” he boasts at one point. “There’s over a hundred of them.” [pg. 63] – but he is unequipped truly to do so. Protected by his family, all of whom are in some way complicit in the criminal and morally ambiguous acts going on all around him, he becomes the victim of a world he cannot understand.
The story of the novel is therefore rich in irony: Harri turns detective, to uncover the murderer of a young schoolboy who is ‘chooked’ to death outside a chicken takeaway on the estate. Aided by a friend who consider himself a CSI aficionado, he takes finger prints and witness statements, performs stake-outs and crime scene sweeps; he entirely lacks, however, the ability to draw together his observations into something close to a total view of the case. Weirdly, and in a catastrophic mis-step for the novel as a whole, Kelman opts to give the totalising voice to a pigeon.
Do you want to know what I think? And I’ve been around long enough to have formed a few opinions. What your problem is, you all want to be the sea. But you’re the sea, you’re just a raindrop. One of an endless number. If only you’d just accept it, things would be so much easier. Say it with me: I am a drop in the ocean. I am neighbour, nation, north and nowhere. I am one among many and we all fall together.
Or maybe I’m just a rat with wings and I don’t know what I’m talking about. [pg. 210]
I can only assume that Kelman intends us to see the colony of pigeons – swatted at, denied nourishment, and treated as pests by the inhabitants of Harri’s estate – to stand in relation to immigrants and benefits claimants as they themselves do to the well-heeled readers of his Booker-longlisted novel. This works as well as you might expect it to, and Harri’s penchant for faux-naive sentimentality doesn’t help the book get over this: discussing DNA (“It’s just a load of colours. But the order they go in’s different for everyone,” his friend explains), Harri opines, “It’s a shame the killer didn’t see his colours in time. Then he could have found the colour for when he chooked the dead boy and painted it over with something else.” [pg. 158] This is thin stuff.
There are nasty, shocking things in this book: Harri’s aunt burns the prints from her fingers with irons and kettles, so that the immigration service can’t identify and deport her; the girlfriend of a gang member lets him burn her in turn as a sort of brand; the simmering tensions between the estate’s inhabitants and the police, and the destructive effects of alcohol and drugs on individuals and communities, are painted subtly and with economy. But between these flashes of another, braver, novel, we have whole passages of Harri’s naifish wit and wisdom, occluding the truth like vaseline on a camera lens. It’s not, of course, that there isn’t a place for clever novels told from a child’s perspective – it’s that this isn’t really one of those. This is a debut novel, rescued from a slush-pile to sell millions, and giving it too rough a ride seems beside the point: its narrative voice is broadly consistent, some of its scenes are memorable and others funny, and it tackles a topic which is less than visible in literary circles; nevertheless, it is also something of a missed opportunity.