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Book Review, Books

Book Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

For once, my book group didn’t take issue with the novel which won the Booker prize this year, but when we decided to read one from the shortlist, Pigeon English was the unamimous choice even though I don’t think any of us was actually looking forward to it.   Debut author Stephen Kelman’s impetus to write this novel came from the murder in 2000 of 10 year old Damilola Taylor.  Pigeon English is the story of 11 year old Harrison Opuku who has arrived from Ghana with his midwife mother and 14 year old sister Lydia to live in a grim tower block in an unnamed part of London, leaving his father and baby sister behind.  When an older boy he knows only slightly is stabbed to death for his fried chicken, Harrison sets out to catch the killer with the help of his friends.

This is a first person narrative in Harrison’s distinctive voice.  To me, he often sounded younger than 11, but I put that down to cultural shock as he adjusts to the differences between rural Ghana and an inner city area where gangs, drugs and violence are part of everyday life.  He is equally fascinated with local gang members X-Fire and Killa and a pigeon which regularly visits the tiny balcony of his flat.  At the time of writing the novel, Stephen Kelman was still living on the deprived estate in Luton where he grew up and it shows in the convincing bleakness of the picture he paints.  Harrison represents goodness in the book but the reader wonders how long he can steer clear of the gangs, given the pressure to fit in.

Thankfully, the bleakness is mitigated by many sweet and funny moments.  We share Harri’s wide-eyed wonder at a science experiment where a row of lemons lights a bulb. When one of his much more streetwise friends asks him what his favourite gun is, he names a fancy water pistol.  He is bemused by many aspects of UK life, such as keeping house plants and not being able to eat fruit from trees.  He’s forever saying that something is ‘the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.’  I loved the way he and his family speak.  My own favourite was the rebuke, ‘Advise yourself!’  But Harri’s memories of Ghana, such as the skeletons of twin babies who are considered evil, make it very clear that life there has a dark side of its own.

Each of the chapters represents a month from March, when the murder took place, to the end of term in July, when Harrison hopes to beat off the competition to be the fastest runner in Year 7.  It is not very plot-driven, and the main interest lies with Harri’s character and perceptions.  To some extent the usual limitations of a first person child narrator apply, but in fact the author exploits this very skilfully.  One of the reasons Pigeon English is so hard-hitting is precisely the gap between Harrison’s innocence and the reader’s sickening sense of the deadly seriousness of what he is getting himself into.  When we discussed the novel, none of us felt the italicised paragraphs in the pigeon’s point of view worked.  Written in a very different style, we found them odd and distracting, but they didn’t appear often enough to be a big problem.

When I was halfway through Pigeon English, this article appeared in The Guardian.

“No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?

When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead”.

I sighed, partly in frustration, and partly out of boredom, because we’ve heard it all before from people wanting to sound intellectual.  ‘Made-up stories?’  Let’s have a think about that.  Where do most writers get their ideas?  The essence of good fiction (I’m talking literary and commercial here, not fantasy, etc) is its truth to life.  That’s how authors create believable characters readers care about, and conflicts and situations they can relate to.  Take the universal themes in the economic crisis alone – ambition, idealism, greed, downfall – and you have the inspiration for many great works from Macbeth to Of Mice and Men.  So I really don’t think we need to worry that readers (yes, even Guardian readers) will be abandoning fiction in droves in favour of books about the Eurozone crisis.

In my book group, Pigeon English provoked one of the strongest emotional responses of anything we have read, and not only because we are parents and live in London.  Stephen Kelman has done more than write a frighteningly realistic novel; he has written a book that matters and has the power to educate, to make people think.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the paperback is marketed as a crossover title. The author says he’d be happy if it gets a few more kids reading, but I hope Pigeon English makes it onto the secondary school curriculum where it can make the biggest impact.

And to anyone who’s given up on fiction because they believe it doesn’t reflect social reality, I recommend that you read Pigeon English.  It may just make you change your mind.


This week the Metropolitan Police launched a campaign aimed at teenagers from 13 to 15 warning of the consequences of carrying weapons.  The YouTube interactive film is called Choose A Different Ending.


About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


15 thoughts on “Book Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

  1. Wow Guardian… way to harsh our buzz!

    Posted by Kelly Hitchcock (@KellyHitchcock) | December 8, 2011, 15:56
  2. Not going to work though is it, Kelly?! As long as there are decent writers out there, there’ll be plenty of readers, I’m absolutely convinced of that.

    Posted by Isabel Costello | December 8, 2011, 18:49
  3. An interesting review – this was the one book I fancied from the shortlist, but still wasn’t sure. Will definitely read it now. As for the Guardian piece, surely the greatest truths are shown through fiction?

    Posted by susan elliot wright | December 11, 2011, 15:45
    • Thanks, I will be very interested to hear what you make of it, Susan. I think books that are ‘of their time’ are quite rare and this is one of them. As for the role of fiction, although I’m not a fan of quotes, I do like the unattributed one that goes something like ‘anyone who thinks they only have one life to lead, doesn’t know how to read a book.’

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 11, 2011, 18:17
  4. Something else for the Christmas list . . .

    Posted by Jo Carroll | December 11, 2011, 16:06
    • Hi Jo, thanks for your comment. This blog is a dangerous place to hang out if you aren’t looking to add further to your ‘to read’ list, but I hope you come back later in the week to read my Hot Picks of 2012. They’re not out yet so at least you can pace yourself !

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 11, 2011, 18:19
  5. No time for fiction now – should we ditch novels in a time of crisis?

    I am sure that everybody who reads Isabel’s blog immediately disagrees, but why? This reminds me of one of those nerdish mathematicians’ jokes: A lecture is taking place. The lecturer talks and writes strings of symbols on the blackboard. He proceeds and says: “and now it is obvious that ….” and writes the next string of symbols. He suddenly stops, stands back, scratches his head and asks aloud: “wait a minute, is it obvious?” he scratches his head a bit more, and then says, “excuse me, ladies and gentlemen” and leaves the lecture theatre. After 25 minutes he comes back in, and announces “yes, it is obvious” and continues the lecture from point where he had stopped and writes down the next string of symbols.

    This is, I think, very much like the situation you are in if you are asked to explain why novels are important. Luckily, the job has been done already, and extremely well, in:

    “Stop what you’re doing and read this!”, Vintage books 2011, £4.99.

    A 180 page paperback of a sensible size at a sensible price. It contains 10 contributions mostly by established writers but also the odd academic, literacy worker ad publisher. Some pieces are autobiographical, others more discursive or analytical. Together these pieces present a very powerful case for fiction, why fiction really matters and why we need it if we want to live in a sane and healthy society.

    I found this book completely by accident and I believe that this is the book which the education secretary should be distributing to every school, instead of his silly bibles idea.

    Whilst I am at it, I also recommend “The Library Book”, Profile Books, 2012, £9.99.
    It contains 24 contributions in defence of public libraries and they cover especially the important role of libraries in promoting the reading of fiction. All royalties go to the reading Agency’s library programmes.

    Posted by Tom Voute | February 16, 2012, 13:49
    • Thanks Tom for your contribution to this debate and for telling us about those two books, both of which I will now check out. Is there ANYTHING you don’t know about?! (I bet you used that maths example just to annoy me – it was good though…)

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 16, 2012, 15:36
      • Finished Pigeon English today. It is beautiful. Never mind the minor flaws. As a foreigner in England, of 40 years standing I recognise the mild puzzlement about so many everyday things, which becomes a state of mind you just continue to live with. I feel at home in such fiction – it is set in the real England as you see it, in London at least. But now I am worried about Stephen Kelman: how on earth do you follow such a first novel? It can only be something entirely different. A tough challenge.

        Posted by Tom Voute | February 17, 2012, 15:01
      • Thanks Tom I have recommended this book to countless people (maybe I belong in book PR!) and so far nobody has failed to be moved by it. You’re right, any flaws are minor indeed (and all books have them) but I’m not sure I share your anxiety about Stephen Kelman. I think anyone who can produce this is capable of pulling something else out of the bag. I was very interested in your Dutch perspective, especially after so many years.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | February 17, 2012, 19:15
  6. Coming to this post very late but thanks for the link Isabel. I’ve just finished Pigeon English and I’m always interested in your reviews. I’m still not sure about it, I think I was expecting a lot more humour as anticipated by the back cover blurb and in the main I found it more sad than funny. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the voice and constant use of phrases like, ‘asweh’ but I appreciate how hard it is to pull off a convincing child’s voice. I absolutely loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and was expecting to feel the same about Pigeon English but it hasn’t had the same impact on me, But I’d definitely recommend it as worth a read as authentic insight into that world.

    Posted by helenmackinven | December 13, 2012, 11:44
    • Thanks Helen, it’s always nice to get a comment on an old post! Looking at Pigeon English at a year’s remove, I still recall it very vividly and the ending knocked me sideways. Like you I found it far more sad than funny. I agree re the near impossibility of getting a child narrator right – I think there have been rather too many child-narrated novels lately and it’s not something I’m that keen on (although one did make my Hot Picks 2013!). I like writing teenagers but that’s completely different really. Isn’t it interesting how the pigeon survived the edit despite nobody I’ve ever come across thinking that worked? Except for the joke in the title, which wouldn’t have made any sense otherwise…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 13, 2012, 15:28


  1. Pingback: 2011 – My Year in Books « Isabel Costello - December 30, 2011

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