‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman

In Pigeon English, Stehpen Kelman learns you about the life of kids in deprived areas in London. He does this with a story, experienced through the eyes of Harrison Opoku. The eleven year old Harri moved to England from Ghana, together with his older sister and his mother, leaving his father and baby-sister behind. With his pigeon watching out for him, he discovers his new habitat,  learns the new rules on school and on the streets, and makes new friends, and enemies. When a boy gets stabbed just around the block, he starts an investigation with his friend Dean, to find the murderer. When getting closer to solving the murder, they get themselves in dangerous situations, with a thrilling plot as result.

The way Kelman wrote the book is very original and clever, using a kid’s perspective, but still making it perfectly fine to read for adults. On top of this, the main character uses Ghanaian slang mixed with London street language. This is also the origin of the title, a play on ‘pidgin English’. The role of the pigeon in the book is of an all-knowing character that can describe what happens in the story from above. Kelman uses a pigeon in the book because of the great similarity with immigrants. They are looked down upon and disgusted by the people everywhere, but we have to live alongside each other without giving the other too much trouble. This writing style makes the book fun to read, brings diversity and really learns you how it is to grow up in such neighborhoods as a kid.  This is actually what Kelman tried to accomplish with his book:

‘I wanted to show the positive aspects of these children’s lives and tell their stories in a way that I think hadn’t necessarily been told before.’

The innocent way Harri describes the world and the situations he gets in makes you see the dark place that these neighborhoods are, in a different, brighter way. This innocence together with his curiosity gets him touch with the dangers of these bad neighborhoods, such as gangs, thieves and alcoholics, wich make the story very interesting.

Stephen Kelman got most inspiration for Pigeon English from his own youth: he grew up in a similar area of the city as the Dell Farm estate in the book. He noticed that only a negative image was drawn by the media about the kids in the deprived areas, what mostly consisted out of knife crime and murder. The big news of the Damilola Taylor murder lead Kelman to the writing of Pigeon English, and the story is also based on this incident.

Even though Pigeon English is the debut book of Stephen Kelman, there was fought over the sell rights of Pigeon English by multiple publishers and was finally bought for a high six number sum. The book is also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and the BBC is planning to make a television program of the book. That Kelmans’ Pigeon English is a success is clear, but does it deserve the great credit it gets? I think it does, for the simple reasons that the book is fun to read, has a touching and fascinating story and creates an excellent picture of the life of these kids in the deprived areas in London.



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