PIGEON ENGLISH by Stephen Kelman


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A charming narrative voice energizes this lively first novel, which has brought enthusiastic reviews, healthy sales and a movie contract to its young British author. 

Eleven-year-old Harrison (“Harri”) Opuku has migrated with his mother and older sister Lydia from Ghana (where his father, baby brother and grandmother remain) to a “council estate” (i.e., public housing in a tower block) in the south of London. Gangs of teenagers from neighborhood estates prowl the violent streets, but Harri responds to their threats by joining forces with a friend (Jordan) as “detectives” resolved to find those responsible for the fatal stabbing of another boy. Kelman quickly gives the reader emotional identification with Harri, who is mischievous (he loves tormenting the huffy, whiny Lydia), a romantic goof (who hopes against hope that his blond schoolmate Poppy will acknowledge his existence), energetic (he’s locally renowned for his speed) and a verbal athlete who speaks in a lively multilingual argot festooned with vivid, funny locutions. When he solemnly grouses, “In England there’s a hell of different words for everything," or pronounces everything along the spectrum that runs from delightful to alarming “hutious,” there’s just no resisting the kid. Unhappily, even though the aforementioned slaying (based on the true story of the 2000 murder of a Nigerian boy) is given central stage early on, the story is depressingly underplotted and really isn’t much of a novel. Its title also refers (too coyly) to the pigeon that lands on Harri’s window ledge, which becomes a kind of protector and exemplar, clumsily signifying both freedom and flight. And when, late in the book, the bird itself swoops in to share the narrative, we sense how desperate Kelman is to fill up pages.

Even a kid as feisty and ingratiating as Harri can overstay his welcome. A pity, because brief snatches of his embryonic wit, street smarts and survival instincts are about as hutious as it gets.

Pub Date: July 19th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-547-50060-7
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2011


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