The View From the Balcony

December 16, 2011

Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English, London: Bloomsbury, 2011

Reviewed by A.G. Craig

In this extraordinary novel Stephen Kelman writes in the voice of a young migrant boy. Harrison Opoku is a Year 7 student from Ghana observing his new world in London and experimenting with the language of his peers. Beautiful things are “dope-fine,” angry young men and the pit bulls that tear up the swings in the local park are “hutious,” and the weather is “proper cold.”

In England there’s a hell of different words for everything. It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left over. It’s very helpful. Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same.

Eleven year old Harri lives in a crowded housing estate with his mother and thirteen year old sister Lydia. His father and baby sister Agnes are still in Ghana. Whenever they can the divided family talk and laugh on the telephone until the phone card runs out. Harri is the man of the house, responsible for locking the doors and guarding against any invaders. Harri is the second fastest runner in Year 7, with the desire to become the fastest. And not just to impress Poppy Morgan, the girl with yellow hair that smells like honey. Harri loves Poppy and he loves sweets. But he never eats jelly babies. They are cruel and remind his Mamma of the dead babies at her work in the hospital.

Harri and the two women in his home life miss Papa and Agnes – especially when Agnes is sick with a fever – and they plan for the day when the family can be reunited. But this may be some time yet. Money is tight and loan sharks require monthly payments for the first set of visas and airplane tickets. At least Mamma hasn’t had to burn off her own finger prints like Auntie Sonia, and she doesn’t live with a violent standover man who menaces people with a baseball bat called the Persuader. Mamma knows men like Auntie Sonia’s Julius, and she fears for Sonia’s safety and teaches Harri to be responsible. “Mamma…says a man who smells of beer is a mess waiting to happen.”

Harri lives in a community with piss stains on the stairs, smashed windows in the community centre, screwdrivers or knives tucked inside pants, and fires that destroy playground equipment. Harri’s favourite gun is the supersoaker until his young friend tells him about the Glock. Harri is variously attracted to or menaced by teenage gangs, led by Year 11 boys with self-fashioned names like X-Fire and Killa.

The tensions of multicultural Britain are experienced on the stairwells and in the playgrounds of Harri’s high-rise estate.

Germs from Africa are the most deadliest, that’s why Vilis ran away when I tried to say hello to him, he thinks if he breathes my germs he’ll die…I don’t even care if Vilis hates me, he’s a dirty tackler and he never passes the ball to me.

Kelman sets his urban scenes with precision and evocative power, never labouring over tone and atmosphere.

Some people use their balconies for hanging washing or growing plants. I only use mine for watching the helicopters.

When he’s not looking out for helicopters Harri waits for a familiar pigeon to fly back on to his balcony. Mamma thinks pigeons are dirty, and Lydia screamed when the pigeon first flew into their flat, but Harri lays out fufu flour to call his pigeon back. “I just want something that’s alive that I can feed and teach tricks to.” Harri and the pigeon are confidantes and mutual guardians.

One day Harri looks down from his balcony to the bins and bottle bank and sees a young man in a hoodie kneel on the floor and pull out a knife.

Harri’s world is one of violence and loss. But it is also a world of love and protection. Mamma and Lydia always guide Harri with the admonition to “advise yourself” and not be led astray into violence, hooliganism or profanities. Harri also sacrifices his own lucky alligator tooth to save the life of little Agnes, his prayer offered up against her fever. But death comes when it will come, in the rain and out front of the shops.

The dead boy’s mamma was guarding the blood. She wanted it to stay, you could tell. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away but she wouldn’t let it.

In the voice and observations of Harri, Kelman presents the humour, passions and simple profundities of teenage life, switching focus and register in a manner that reveals Harri’s mind and character.

Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see him very much because he was older and he didn’t go to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted him to fall off.

But this boy was stabbed to death on the street. He was “chooked” in the guts, perhaps to get his take-away food or maybe because he “fronted” the wrong person. “I said a prayer for him inside my head. It just said sorry….Who’d chook a boy just to get his Chicken Joe’s?”

To answer this question becomes Harri’s mission for the rest of this excellent first novel, a book which is as powerful and memorable at its end as it is striking and evocative from its first page.

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