“Points For Accuracy”: Stephen Kelman’s “Pigeon English”

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.



“More Colours Than I Knew”: Emma Henderson’s “Grace Williams Says It Loud”

Many of the novels on this year’s Orange shortlist seem to concern themselves with questions of voice and identity: in Annabel, Wayne struggles to find a means to express his own conflicted, suppressed interiority; in The Memory of Love, a nation’s unspeakable pain is spoken, is brought to difficult life for an unattentive wider audience; and in Room, of course, Emma Donoghue embeds us within the perspective of a child who has only ever known a single, enclosed square space.

Grace Williams Says It Loud, Emma Henderson’s debut novel, shares this broad interest in voiceless voices, and is closest to Room in its approach. Grace is a mentally and physically disabled young woman, born in 1947 and placed in a residential home at the age of 11, at the behest of doctorly opinion. Throughout the book, she speaks only in two-syllable sentences, her tongue a lolling, unresponsive muscle which lies disobedient in a mouth unable to form the shapes necessary to enunciate Grace’s vowels. Henderson’s conceit, of course, is to make Grace garrulous: her narrative voice is full of rhythm and pitch, alive to pop culture and poetry, replete with refrains and alive to allusion.

The tragedy of the book, and of Grace, is that this voice is silent. Indeed, it is impossible – Grace couldn’t really write this novel, and Henderson’s canny manoeuvre is to foreground the novelist’s necessary lie that any stripe of person could express their story in ways so luminous and coherent. This makes Grace Williams Says It Loud quite a sly book with language its principal theme: whether during the home’s French lessons, whilst having a book about disabilities read to her (“They call us ugly, but at least they give our deformities beautiful names” [pg. 129]), or listening to the lists composed by her only friend and eventual lover, the double amputee epileptic Daniel, Grace is constantly confronted by the gaps between words, the things they signify, and the way they’re used. Language is for her an impossible obstacle, a transparent wall without purchase or escape route. That the novel form provides us with a route into her vibrant inner life can merely dramatise this catastrophe.

Grace is treated with little love or consideration even by her own family: her own sister, who though physically perfect is no more the master of her selfish, sulky moods than the frustrated and occassionally angry Grace, says she smells; her parents, meanwhile, drive her to the abuse-ridden home in the first place. The staff are even worse: from the habitual sexual assaults of the resident dentist (“I’d have bitten it off, that dick, if I’d still had my teeth” [pg. 128]) to the casual sadism of the nursing staff (“I licked the shit from the wet enamel of the nurses’ toilet” [pg. 163]), Grace is dehumanised and brutalised with shocking and unremitting consistency. “The patient has considerable sensory impairment,” sniffs one doctor. “In the course of today’s physical examination, I detected a greatly diminished sense of pain, indeed of any feeling.” [pg. 29] We say this about fish so we feel better about hooking them.

If all this makes the novel sound something of a fictive misery memoir, then it is probably guilty as charged. Even Grace and Daniel’s love affair – the one aspect of romance and tenderness in Grace’s life – is signalled from the first page to be doomed (“When Sarah told me Daniel had died” are the novel’s first words), whilst the minimal representation of opinion opposed to the depicted mental health consensus of the 50s, 60s and 70s (“some of them have the most plastic, malleable, marvellous, minds,” insists one teacher [pg. 125]) are so feint and compromised, and so few and far between, that the darkness of Grace’s predicament is not lifted. This is not, in and of itself, a problem: no doubt Henderson’s own experience with her institutionalised sister, Claire,  has informed this presentation of the home, and no doubt lives in such places really were relentless and grim. But it does mean that as a novel this story lacks a through-line; its momentum is simply its episodic litany of degradation, and the only forward-pull is Grace’s own voice.

Many reviews of this novel praise that voice – and, as noted above, it is undoubtedly a smart piece of play and a quite concerted effort of prose. At the same time, if the voice did not fail me then I must have failed the voice. Grace, alas, did not make it off the page for me; her great virtue – that she is non-judgemental, that she not just resists but seems never to consider bitterness or resentment – also means that even her narration feels at times as if it is at rest. The front cover of my copy shows two young people watching a calm, still sea; reading Grace Williams Says It Loud sometimes feels very much like that. Its message of empathy and its insistence on shared humanity and common feeling is laudable, and in many ways its conscious games with form avoid the pitfalls of Emma Donoghue’s more literal capture of voice in Room. But that latter novel is at least never less than a page-turner.

I feel perhaps that Henderson deserves a rather better review than this may seem. Nevertheless, I rather think the prize tonight should go to one of either The Memory of Love or Great House. After winning the Youth Prize, though, Donoghue is the favourite. I’m not sure this would reflect the strength of a shortlist much more considered than both my own and Victoria Hoyle’s demons might find Room.

EDIT: So The Tiger’s Wife won. My feeling is that it would thoroughly deserve a first novel gong, but that it may be out-written by The Memory of Love. I can see the case for it against Great House – Krauss’s novel lacks light and shade, preferring an overall mood to tonal variation – but Forna’s book felt to this reader at least more incisive, and more meaty, than Obreht’s. Congratulations to her, though – she’s now a writer with huge momentum.


Emma Donoghue’s “Room”

She moves. “Jack, there’s a lot of things in the world.”


“Zillions and zillions. If you try to fit them all in your head, it’ll just burst.” [Room, pg. 228]

"Room", Emma Donoghue

My Booker reading continues with Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I can’t help but view as a curious inclusion. It’s a sort of fictionalised misery memoir, with the twist that its narrator, the five-year-old boy Jack, isn’t aware that he’s miserable.

Jack’s mother, whose name we never learn because Jack chooses to parse it as an unecessary additional appelation whenever anyone uses it, was abducted some years prior to the first pages of Room; her abductor, whom Jack knows as Old Nick, has imprisoned her in a purpose-built, hermetically sealed shed in his backyard. Here he sexually, physically and emotionally abuses her. Their first child was stillborn, but their second, Jack, has survived and – as Room begins – Ma is becoming more and more certain that he cannot live much longer in such isolation without being damaged irrevocably.

Certainly the key feature of Room is the manner in which Donoghue constructs a narrative from a viewpoint so limited, so influenced by a world only eleven feet square. Jack has no use for articles, for instance  – there is no need for parts of speech which identify the specifity of a noun. Everything in Jack’s world is specific: Room itself, of course, but also Bed and Table and Chair.  “We have thousands of things to do every morning,” he insists, simultaneously confident that the images he sees on his television are entirely invented, that the world is Room, Ma, and Old Nick.

This narrative voice might remind the reader a little of Mark Haddon’s in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, another garlanded novel focusing on a young narrator with a narrowed worldview. It must be said, alas, that Donoghue doesn’t maintain the style as well as Haddon – at times, she is overly cute, and crucially, when Jack is exposed to the wider world, she does not handle the inevitable tensions as well as Haddon: Room sags fatally in its final third.

Inspired of course by the Fritzl case, Room is a topical novel which manages its central conceit competently if not entirely consistently. It is also one which seems rather squeamish about that conceit – Jack’s viewpoint, memorably innocent and memorably wronged, allows Donoghue to swerve away from the more complex psychologies of his mother, father and other relatives.

Room thus packs a kind of emotional punch, but constantly pulls it. Its inclusion on the Booker shortlist feels like an attempt to open the award out to new kinds of readers, and this is no bad thing. But it is an odd inclusion not just because it is a different kind of book; it’s an unusual choice because it is a relatively slight one.