Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English

If you want to know how an ending can completely make or unmake a book, read Pigeon English. It's the powerful ending that saves this book, at least in my eyes - though given the hype that accompanied its release in 2011 (huge advance for a first-time author, Booker short-list, etc), others seem to think that it had more than the ending.

Maybe it's just that I'm sick of the whole "child narrator going through bad times" thing. It's been over-done so much that it's starting to feel forced - an easy way to get into all the shortlists.

But to be honest, Stephen Kelman does it well. His Harrison Opuku, fresh to England from Ghana, is eleven years old, and is trying to get used to everything around him - the council-estate flat he lives in, his school and classmates, the neighbourhood gang, the pretty girl in class, the constant violence around him. To make things more complicated, a boy at his school is stabbed to death. Harri is so thrown by the murder that he tries to find out who did it.

Harri's language is interesting - apparently a mix of Ghanaian slang and English. We have to figure out the meaning of the words as we go along - Asweh, hutious, bo-styles, dey touch. The biggest success of the book is how it manages to show all the violence and small tragedies that surround Harri in a way that still endears him to the reader. There is the domestic abuse his aunt goes through, there is his mother's fear that they will be repatriated, there is the violence of the neighbourhood gang.

But throughout, the reader is wondering - what's the point of all this? Harri just seems to be going through his normal life - his tiffs with his sister, his conversations with his classmates, his discoveries of new things in this new country, his murder investigation that seems to lead nowhere. Is the murder the point? Is Harri's experiences of the new country the point? What explains the more-breathless-than-usual blurbs on the cover?

And then comes the ending. It's short, barely a couple of pages long, but it's "proper brutal" as Harri would have put it. Suddenly, the whole book makes sense, and you go back over everything that happened, in the new context of the ending. In fact, I was struck dumb for a few minutes, prompting the husband to wonder if something had happened to me!

Read it, yes. Read it for the language, read it for Harri, read it for the ending.
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