A charming, moving debut
In literature, the child’s-eye view is one of the most difficult things to pull of convincingly. As a writer, on the one hand, you run the risk of being schmaltzy; on the other, it is easy to take false steps that betray you and short-circuit your intentions.
The legendary Irish writer, Frank O’Connor, was a fine example of how to do a child’s-eye view well. (Read My Oedipus Complex, his debut collection of stories.) Philip Roth did a splendid job with it in The Plot Against America. Only recently, the first half of Emma Donoghue’s The Room (shortlisted for the Man Booker last year) turned out to be an entirely credible, compelling evocation of a child’s world through a child’s voice.
Now comes debut novelist Stephen Kelman with Pigeon English. Narrated by Harri, an 11-year-old boy who comes from Ghana to a council estate in London with his mother and elder sister (his younger sister, father and grandmother are still in Ghana, saving up money to join the rest of the family), Pigeon English is a funny, poignant, accomplished rendering of the world of this child who finds himself in circumstances that are unfamiliar, thrilling and threatening.
Kelman is very good with the details of the child’s observations, and the rhythms of his speech. A child sees more and less than an adult; he sees things differently. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult for a writer to enter the mind of the child and see things from his point of view. Kelman succeeds in doing just that.
As Harri gets drawn towards – and into – the workings of an inner-city gang, we feel fear, anxiety and helplessness. At the same time, there is in Harri’s innocence something wondrous and life-affirming.
Which is why, despite being about (or at least around) crime and race and gang war, Pigeon English is, in the end, a novel shot through with hope and wonder.
You can watch a trailer of the novel here.
And here is Kelman speaking about the novel.
Published in the UK in March, the book is now out in India.