Friday, December 31, 2010

"Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman

Summary: Harri, an eleven-year-old Ghanaian boy who recently immigrated to England, narrates this novel from the small community in which he lives with his mom and sister (his father and baby sister are still back in Ghana).  The thread that holds the narrative together as Harri describes his community, friends and classmates, and experiences, is the recent murder of a local boy.  Harri is determined to investigate the murder, CSI-style, but doing so exposes him to some of the harsh realities of where he lives.

Musings: Although Pigeon English took me a bit to get in to, I'm glad I remained with the novel because I was introduced to a fresh and heartbreaking voice in the narrator of Harri.  Through Harri's eyes, his community is a mixture of the fabulous and the dangerous.  He can talk about the "hutious" (apparently Ghanaian slang for dangerous) gangs as easily as he can talk about the joy of cool sneakers or his love for his baby sister.  And perhaps what is most difficult for the reader is the way in which Harri accepts all of these facets of his life with a matter-of-fact naivete.

Harri jumps from topic to topic without a transitioning thought, and although it can be distracting at times, the style also effectively captures a young man's train of thought.  You can see the many pressures he is under from the people around him--he wants to be good and do the right thing, but he also is caught up in the pressures from others.  Nonetheless, he is someone who sees the world with idealistic clarity, and as the reader, you end up loving him and fearing for his survival.

I especially enjoyed the way in which Kelman captures Harri's relationship with his sister Lydia; it's a relationship built on both bickering and love.  Pigeon English also shows the complicated relationships of adolescent boys trying to be cool and tough and often resorting to dangerous means to prove it.

The only sections of the book I didn't like were the short italicized narrations by a pigeon Harri befriends.  The pigeon "speaks" enigmatically, and though it seems like the sections are supposed to be especially deep, I just didn't understand them.  Harri's voice is perfect to capture the mood and scene, and the pigeon's interjections are only a distraction.

Otherwise, Pigeon English is an engrossing novel with perfect characterization, and it demonstrates how difficult it is to maintain hope in destructive environments.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Pigeon English will be published in July 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

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