By Stephen Kelman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt July 2011
Pigeon English is the story of Harri, an eleven year old boy who has recently moved from Ghana to London with his mother and sister. He leaves behind in Africa his father, grandmother, and baby sister Agnes, who hope to join them in England within a year. Harri is constantly amazed by the things he experiences – new sneakers, the beauty and complexity of words, the tenderness of a first love. But his world is not only filled with wonder, it is also filled with danger. He lives in the midst of gang warfare and unintentionally puts a target on his own back.
When a boy is murdered in his neighborhood, Harri and his friend Dean decide to investigate. Harri wants to bring justice to the boy because “…it’s a personal mission. The dead boy even told the rogues to leave me alone one time when they were hooting me for wearing ankle-freezers (that’s when the legs of your trousers are too short). I didn’t even ask him, he just helped me for no reason. I wanted him to be my friend after that but he got killed before it came true. That’s why I have to help him now, he was my friend even if he didn’t know about it. He was my first friend who got killed and it hurts too much to forget.” Using binoculars Harri won at a festival and tape to take fingerprints, the boys set out to find out which of the strange and dangerous people they know is a murderer.
As I started reading, I didn’t think I was going to like this book. Harri's unique style of speaking takes some getting used to, but I think it mostly stemmed from my discomfort with the idea of gang violence and inner city life. Harri is a wonderful character and an exuberant child, but even he occasionally participates in ugly things. As a parent, I think I imagine my own son as an eleven year old but don’t want to consider that his experiences could even remotely resemble those of Harri.
As I continued to read, I was captivated by Harri’s exuberance and love for the people and things around him. The contrast between a wonderful little boy and the very violent, grown-up world in which he lives is striking. Instead of my initial feelings of discomfort about inner city neighborhoods riddled with gang violence, I now feel renewed compassion for those innocents caught in the crossfire and wonder what we can do as a society to prevent children from growing up in situations like this.
One of the most beautiful parts of the book was the love that Harri had for his family. Even as he is contemplating taking part in gang initiation, he thinks of his family still in Ghana. He glories in his father’s love and approval and marvels at his baby sister Agnes’ improved speech each time he talks with her on the phone. One of the sweetest passages occurs when Agnes is very sick. Harri bargains with God for the life of his sister. “If Agnes dies I’ll just swap places with her. She can have my life. I’ll give it to her and I’ll die instead. I wouldn’t mind because I’ve already lived for a long time. Agnes has only lived for one year and some. I hope God lets me.”
The youth and joy of Harri is balanced by the presence of a pigeon that he befriends. At first, the pigeon is just a bird that Harri tries to feed, but as the book progresses, we discover that the bird is a sort of guardian for the boy. Although the bird can't speak to Harri, he comments on Harri’s life and tries to protect him from the world in which he lives. It seems a somewhat farfetched concept, but the bird speaks (thinks?) so beautifully that it works. “The rain keeps falling, the sea keeps rising, you keep going. You keep going out of spite or with magnificent defiance, you keep going through steely instinct or by cotton-wool consensus, you keep going because you’re made that way. You keep going, and we love you for it.”
Mr. Kralman has written a beautiful debut novel. It can be hard to read, but its implications are too important to ignore. Harri Opuku has joined the roster of young protagonists who teach adult readers important lessons about life, death, faith, and love.
Note: This novel was short-listed this morning (!) for the Man Booker Prize, which recognizes achievement in fiction in the United Kingdom. For more information on this award, visit the award website here.