It’s pretty rare that I manage to read a book before it has been nominated for an award. I just learned that Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is on the longlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Kelman is a first time novelist from Luton, England.
Can a novel be both charming and gritty? Harri Opoku is an engaging eleven year old boy who has recently emigrated to London from Ghana. Along with his mother and older sister he lives in a council estate, while his father and beloved baby sister remain in Ghana until enough money can be amassed to reunite the family. Told through the eyes and voice of Harri, we’re treated to a child’s view of a rather dangerous world. Harri and his friends embark on an investigation when a school mate is murdered.
Harri’s world is a dangerous place. Bullies carry weapons and will not hesitate to inflict violence. Harri gravitates from this world to home where there is love, comfort and religion. He is proud that he is the fastest runner in his year, worries that his charity shop runners aren’t good enough and delights in his first girlfriend Poppy. When he leaves home there are drug dealers, petty criminals and gangs. Home may not be safe enough to protect Harri and his family.
Harri’s voice is the key to this bittersweet story. Kelman appears to have a keen sense of an eleven year old’s view of the world. Harri speaks in English laced with Ghanian expressions (glossary included in the back) and London slang slight misused. After a few pages it becomes very natural. Pigeon English has very powerful messages about urban society and I’m sure will be a popular choice for book groups. Many reviewers are predicting that it will find its way into school curriculum very soon.
As I was reading other novels with child narrators would come to mind.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle “The 1993 Booker Prize winner. Paddy Clarke, a ten-year-old Dubliner, describes his world, a place full of warmth, cruelty, love, sardines and slaps across the face. He’s confused; he sees everything but he understands less and less.” publisher
Room by Emma Donoghue “To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It’s where he was born and where he and his Ma eat and play and learn. At night, Ma puts him safely to sleep in the wardrobe, in case Old Nick comes. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it’s the prison where Old Nick has kept her for seven years, since she was nineteen. Through ingenuity and determination, Ma has created a life for herself and her son, but she knows it’s not enough for either of them. Jack’s curiosity is building alongside Ma’s desperation — and Room can’t contain either of them for much longer… Told entirely in the inventive, often funny voice of Jack, Room is a celebration of the resilient bond between parent and child, and a brilliantly executed novel about a journey from one world to another.” publisher
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon “Narrated by a fifteen-year-old autistic savant obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, this dazzling novel weaves together an old-fashioned mystery, a contemporary coming-of-age story, and a fascinating excursion into a mind incapable of processing emotions. Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, Christopher is autistic. Everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning for him. At fifteen, Christopher’s carefully constructed world falls apart when he finds his neighbour’s dog Wellington impaled on a garden fork, and he is initially blamed for the killing.” publisher