London, Bloomsbury, 2011, 263p
I had high expectations for this book, hoping for something political and daring, exploring the life of a young boy living in inner-city London. I had hoped to be completely engaged from page one, but found my interest wavering - the only thing keeping me going being the sweet, kind-hearted protagonist.
Pigeon English is Harri's story. He is a immigrant from Ghana, living with his mother and sister on the ninth floor of a tower block. He is a good child, keeping on the right side of the tracks, avoiding involvement in the local gangs. One day, a boy from the area is killed, and Harri is hypnotised by the blood, determined to help the cops solve the crime and find the killer. He uses techniques he has seen, such as finger-printing and interrogation. But by asking questions, he starts to draw too much attention to himself, creeping closer and closer to danger.
Harri is a really endearing narrator: he is so innocent, learning about this new country with it's strange customs and language. He talks about the language he picks up at school, explaining the slang, often misunderstanding it's meaning. In a environment of crime and immorality, he is pure and inquisitive, not realising the danger he is getting himself in to. He has a very positive outlook on the world around him, and his narrative voice is uplifting and optimistic, even at the darkest of times.
The novel is also intersected by the narrative of Harri's favourite pigeon. It is unclear if this pigeon is truly Harri's guardian angel, or if that is just how Harri percieves him. Harri imagines the pigeon talking to him, watching over him and his family. The pigeon's world view conflicts with Harri's - it is more realistic, noting the danger, warning him about the harsh world he explores.
So, in terms of the narrative, Pigeon English is original and evocative - I found myself drawn to Harri, sharing his innocence and optimism. But the plot was slow and boring. Kelman was clearly going for a political commentary, exploring the issues surrounding crime in urban areas, but he did not successfully manage that balance between social criticism and plot. Perhaps it was too subtle for me, but I felt that one of these elements was lacking, and the excellent narrative was not an adequate substitute.