Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

 The Times, Saturday 26 February 2011

For the children and teenagers in Stephen Kelman’s first novel, avoiding the attention of gang members on the way to school has become second nature. Pigeon English is set among the high-rise flats of the inner city, where kids use the corridors of tower blocks and the space between buildings to play games; the local playground has been vandalised and set on fire.

Eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku is a newcomer to this tough environment, having recently arrived from Ghana with his mother and one of his sisters. His father and his other sister have stayed behind. Harrison, known as Harri, throws himself into his new existence, perplexing though it often seems. He is too young to realise how precarious the family’s toehold in England is, and his mother’s determination to protect her children from the truth denies him essential knowledge.

Meanwhile, Harri simply accepts that his Aunt Sonia has blackened fingers, her fingertips burnt off on a stove so that she cannot be identified as an illegal immigrant; he accepts that other injuries were inflicted by her thuggish boyfriend Julius, without understanding the role that this sinister man has played in his own arrival in England. He is not surprised when his friends find a spoon encrusted with crack cocaine near the school gate and argue over who is brave enough to lick it. Even the blood from a stabbed boy, pooling darkly on the pavement outside the take-away, is something to be approached with bravado.

Harri’s way of dealing with the fatal stabbing is to turn it into a mystery before hunting for clues with his friend Jordan. But he is not sufficiently familiar with inner-city life to understand the risks of playing boy-detective. Acquiring binoculars and using sticky tape to lift fingerprints seems like a joke to Harri, but not to the Dell Farm Crew, who have progressed from childish horseplay to sinister adolescence.

Pigeon English is a superb evocation of a child’s inner world at a moment when each day brings troubling new impressions. Kelman’s novel is too assured to feel like an impersonation, even though he uses Ghanaian slang that will not be familiar to most readers. There are lyrical passages — lanterns during a power cut in Ghana look “like stars all fallen down” — alongside a pre-pubescent boy’s fascination with bodily functions. Bravado alternates with touching moments of naivety. It offers rare insights into a tough environment where knife crime and gang culture simply have to be coped with along with annoying teachers and fierce dogs. What emerges in the end is the sheer arbitrariness of who survives on the rumbustious, confusing and dangerous estates that so many families have no choice but to call home.

Bloomsbury £12.99

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