Sunday 21 August 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Eleven year old Harri has recently arrived in London from Ghana with his Mum and sister Lydia.  Living on a council estate in the city, he is fascinated with his new surroundings.  He is mesmerised by the fact that trains travel underground and loves the view from his high-rise tower block.  But his naivety has a darker side too and he doesn't realise the danger he is in when he starts to investigate the murder of a local teenager and the Dell Farm gang start to notice him.

I should start by saying that I wanted to read this book because I teach in an area very similar to the one Harri is growing up in, inner city London with large numbers of recent immigrants and some gang culture.  Other reviewers have complained about the flippant way Harri discusses violence and accepts it as part of life, but for me it rang true.  His childlike acceptance of it was one of the most disturbing parts of the book - he didn't even know that there was more out there, that he deserved better.

I also enjoyed Harri's slang (I wanted to go around afterwards saying 'Advise yourself!' and 'Asweh') and the way Kelman wrote his inner monologue, forever jumping from one topic to the next.  One moment he is missing his baby sister in Ghana, the next he is considering what superpower he would like, and the next he is running away from a gang initiation.  And I think that is what an eleven year old's inner monologue would be like.

In fact, I loved the whole thing.  I enjoyed seeing the world through someone else's eyes, and grew very attached to Harri, his sister Lydia (who made the wrong friends), and their mother, working all hours to pay off her debts and therefore not able to be around much.  I know from experience there are countless children in London in the same position as Harri, and for that reason it was a powerful read for me.   I couldn't put it down and couldn't stop thinking about it afterwards.  I would really recommend this one.

Verdict: A powerful read about growing up around gang culture in inner-city London.
Source: Kindle
Score: 5 out of 5


  1. I loved this one too. I think his innocence and naïveté, really, to the violence around him, and the way he accepts it as normal, results in it being more obviously bad, at least to me. I really hope the book gets shortlisted for the Booker!

  2. The second review I read on this book which sounds very good. Thanks for the post.

  3. This sounds fabulous, it sounds like a unique insight.

  4. I bought this the other day - sounds a good buy!

  5. Jenny, glad someone else enjoyed it! I think it will get at least shortlisted for the Booker, if only for its subject matter.

    Mystica, you should read it!

    Mummazappa, it is a unique insight. A bit like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime in that respect.

    Beth - hope you get a chance to read it soon :)

  6. There aren't a lot of books that really capture a child's voice. This sounds like one that did!

    Thank you for the review!

  7. Thanks for the review. I've heard good things about this one but I didn't know exactly what it was about.

  8. Great review! I've been interested in this book. I've also heard people compare it to "Room" by Emma Donoghue. Would you agree?

  9. You know, when I read your review I thought the book is reminiscent of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime. I loved that book so this is also going on my tr list.

  10. This sounds great. And I absolutely love the cover art.

  11. This sounds like a very good read -- and from your description it does sound like the author has quite skillfully captured the inner voice of an 11 year old...

  12. Deb - I agree, children are hard to capture well. I think us grown ups forget what it feels like to be a child :P

    LBC - hope you enjoy the book!

    Donovan - I haven't actually read Room yet, although I do have a copy. The best comparision I can make is to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

    Che - Hope you enjoy it, it's a great read :)

    Karen - I love the cover art too, I remember noticing it in a bookshop when it first came out for that reason :P

    TheBookGirl - It was a great read, hope you get a chance to read it.