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Words of a Bibliophile

"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English - Stephen Kelman

I came across this novel several years ago and thought it looked interesting, but only got around to buying it at a recent book fair. The endearing hero, 11-year-old Harri Opoku who recently migrated from Ghana to London, UK, clumsily attempts to "investigate" the murder of a kid in his crime-prone inner city neighborhood. Though it's a nice story and quite funny at times, I wasn't as impressed with the book as I thought I would be. I felt that the main plot is often sidetracked by the (mis)adventures of Harri with his family, friends, and foes, as well as anecdotes from his life back in Ghana.

At first I thought the title Pigeon English is only a word play referring to the pidgin language that Harri uses. The first-person narration is peppered with terms like "hutious" (scary) and "asweh" (I swear), and when Harri thinks something is awesome he'll say it's "dope-fine". But it turns out there is an actual pigeon in the story and some sections even appear to be narrated by the bird. I'm not sure if those parts are meant to insert some kind of magical realism, but they seem misplaced and don't quite work for me.

I saw this book being compared to Emma Donoghue's Room due to its use of a child narrator with unconventional language and a gap between the innocent child's understanding and our own. Although the story didn't quite touch me the way Room did, it's still a meaningful book, especially because it was inspired by a true story of knife crime involving children in a low-income urban neighborhood in the UK.