pigeon“You could see the blood.”

From the rich streets of California, to an London tower block, I have once again skipped location, genre, narrator and time for a new story. I remember Pigeon English coming out and being immediately popular. As such, because I’m a nightmare for things like that, I ignored it. It didn’t seem like something that would interest me very much. Fortunately, I have a friend who understands me and my literary tastes perhaps better than my own. After discussing Bradbury with her last week, I was prompted to pick up this book which she bought for me last year.

Pigeon English is the story of Ghanaian immigrant Harrison Okupu, who is eleven years old and lives in a London tower block with his mother and older sister Lydia. The rest of his family – Papa, Grandma and baby Agnes – are still in Ghana and he speaks to them regularly on the phone, but they are still saving up to move over for a better life. Harri is a bright and curious young boy who spends his time being the fastest runner in Year 7, talking to his friends about superheroes and cars, and annoying his sister. He is innocent in many respects, but wishes to become friends with the Dell Farm Crew, a gang of Year 11s who are, in his eyes at least, very cool.

The novel opens with the death of a teenage boy who lived on Harri’s estate. He was stabbed outside a chicken shop and, because the dead boy once spoke to Harri and he considers that they would have become friends, the intrepid young boy takes it on himself, with the help of his friend Dean, to find out who killed him. Armed with a sense of duty, some cheap binoculars and Dean’s encyclopedic knowledge of crime dramas, they set about their mission, which is interspersed with singing in church, playing dares and watching the pigeon that always seems to be around.

Harri forms a close bond to this particular pigeon who always seems to return to him again and again. The novel appears to be Harri telling the story to the pigeon and, in a wonderful little bonus, the pigeon sometimes shares its thoughts in return. It talks about being attacked by magpies, about the joy of shitting on people’s heads, and also gets very deep – the pigeon knows that there is a Heaven. The pigeon is benevolent and there to keep Harri safe.

Kelman’s interpretation of the way pre-teens speak and act is brilliant and while the slang has certainly moved on since I was that age (a sobering fourteen years ago), the sense of wonder and that feeling of being the centre of the universe is definitely relatable. Harri is still excited by the Tube (even if he thinks it smells of farts), loves Skips and the way they fizz on your tongue and knows all the rules that he’s learnt from school, like “No running on the stairs”, “Always put your hand up before you ask a question” and “He who smelt it, dealt it.”

I’m particularly fond of his relationship with his sister, Lydia. She’s about 13 and thinks she’s the big “I am”, especially in front of her friend Miquita, but while the two tease and taunt each other mercilessly, the siblings clearly do love each other and have fun of their own. When push comes to shove, Lydia will go above and beyond to help and protect her little brother.

It’s a funny book, but it’s definitely dark. Harri doesn’t really understand certain things, like why his aunt burns her fingerprints off, or why her boyfriend carries a baseball bat around. It’s a book of hope in the harsh reality of twenty-first century Britain, a story that touches on poverty, immigration and the gang culture that seems to be so deeply ingrained in London and other places today. It will make you laugh, but it will also make you cry.

Heartwarming, heartwrenching and just a little bit magical.

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