Pigeon English ~ Stephan Kelman

Eleven year old Harri has recently moved from Ghana with part of his family: his mother, and older sister Lydia. His father and young sister Agnes have stayed behind with plans to join them later. When a classmate is stabbed to death, Harri and his best friend Dean take to becoming detectives, looking to solve the murder, dusting for fingerprints, seeking DNA, searching for the murder weapon and observing the  usual suspects for tell-tale signs that they may be the culprits. There are tell-tale signs of guilt, you know. Harri, on stake outs, takes meticulous notes. Dean’ a big CSI fan, so he belies he knows the drill. Harri has been particularly moved by the death of his classmate, which is what has spurred him into action, engagement.

Maybe I was spoiled by last years voice in Emma Donoghue’sThe Room, but Harri’s voice is meant to capitalize on the incongruity of Harri’s manner and speech – precocious, and faux-tough. Harri of course, speaks in pidgin English, hence the title. But he has a guardian pigeon of sorts who looks out for Harri. Intermittently throughout the novel, the pigeon comments on life. Frankly, I mostly didn’t see the connection of the pigeon to the story at all, as I found it almost completely tacked on, not an organic piece of the novel at all.

What Kelman does well though, is to mine the camaraderie of Harri and his friends, to treat a coming-of-age young love with sensitivity. Admittedly Harri is a sweet, engaging character. It’s just too bad that he has no supporting cast to match his verve. A book too deeply flawed to win the Booker this year, it’s a first novel that gets some things right, but stumbles around to find its footing all too often.


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