Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Pigeon English - M's review

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Due to the themes and content of this novel, this review has been deliberately selected by me to run during Anti-Bullying Week.
Previously shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Pigeon English really is not a heavy, wade-through-me novel.  It’s pacy and simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.  

Harri is in Year 7 and has recently moved from Ghana with his mother and sister. They are living on a rough council estate in London. Harri tells a story about what happens when a boy from their area is found stabbed to death and he and his friend decide to become ‘detectives’.  Through Harri’s ‘whodunit’ detective story, Pigeon English explores what life is like for children trying to make a life for themselves in the London ganglands.

At first, I thought the title Pigeon English was mainly going to be a play on words, pidgin English, seeing as Harri is from Ghana.  In one way it is, as throughout the story Harri explains what he thinks the new words, rules and slang he’s picked up mean. Many of these will make you chuckle and many will elicit other emotions too.  Some of it is a bit of a pidgin mix up. Harri got me too – for a long while, when Harri said ‘Asweh,’ I thought Asweh was some kind of ancestral god (I swear, I’m such a sucker)! And his sister, Lydia, was funny by always reprimanding Harri and reminding him to ‘advise yourself”!

But there is also an actual pigeon in the novel. This pigeon flies into Harri’s London flat one day, and also acts as his guardian. For me, the pigeon as guardian provides a foreboding warning to the reader about where the plot is going. You might be chuckling away at Harri’s innocence but the pigeon reminds you that this story is really about violent bullying.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Harri is a delightful narrator and character. Deep down he’s a really good boy and for most readers, he’s likely to melt your hearts.  It’s the little things he does. Like he thinks people should tell the estate gangs the secret that gangs can also do good, helpful missions, not just harmful ones. And his hand-drawn lines on his plain trainers to make them look like the cool brand ones.

As with most child narrators, Harri’s observations, thoughts and recounts, shed light on the many different prejudices that people carry around in their heads and throw about in their words and sometimes actions too.

Pigeon English is also a murder mystery, a whodunit story and in this way joins some other wonderful novels for teens like The CuriousIncident of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Night Sky In MyHead by Sarah Hammond.

Harri’s story is a chilling one. While it was not written or first published as a YA novel, in comparison to some other YA novels that take on gritty urban issues, for me, Pigeon English sings and soars above them. There are some nasty characters in this novel but the author, through Harri, softens them and makes them more palatable to read about than some other novels achieve, such as This Is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees or Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses sequence. Shocking as the story in Pigeon English is, it doesn’t aim for a ‘shock factor’. I’d even go so far as to say that while it dishes dirt, it takes the grit out. For me, that’s what gives it wings.

This new edition is published for the YA market and has guidance on the back: Parental Advisory: Explicit Content. Yes, there is some explicit content in this novel mostly involving knives, tongues and fingers - all told from eleven year old Harri’s perspective. Definitely one for the older teens (and obviously adults) but I think a lot of young teens could (and maybe should) get their heads around it too. Strong hearts needed. Perhaps tissues too.  This is a novel worth keeping.


Publication details:
Bloomsbury, October 2012 edition, London, paperback
This copy: received for review from the publisher



  1. I have just started reading this and defintely see the comparison to The Curious Incident and The Night Sky. I am loving it so far and I cant wait to see what happens, thanks for the review M!

    1. You're welcome & I hope you enjoy it, Raimy. I've subsequently seen that a lot of other readers are highly recommending it too.


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