Pigeon English – Suitable for Teenagers?
How are young readers to make sense of life in the rundown areas of our inner cities, places where gangs rule and there is senseless violence? Booker shortlisted author Stephen Kelman hopes that his adult novel, Pigeon English, inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor in Peckham will also be read by young people. But is it suitable for young readers? Geoff Fox discusses.
‘In a year or so,’ says Lewis Jones in TheTelegraph, ‘[Pigeon English] will be a fixture in the school English syllabus.’ Edinburgh Book Review agrees: ‘One can see it being used as a set text in early secondary school.’ No chance. Imagine Year Sevens or Eights sharing this passage – maybe reading it aloud in class: ‘She peeled my fingers apart and stuck one up her toto. It felt wet and rubbery. She got another finger and another finger and she made my hand go up and down.’ Telegraph parents would be the first knocking on the Head’s door.
In context, 11 year-old narrator Harri Opoku’s experience is comic rather than sexy. His older sister’s streetwise friend is initiating him into ‘harder kissing’ and possible outcomes – Harri doesn’t want to mess things up if he ever manages a kiss with his lovely classmate Poppy Morgan. Even the hand-scrawled inscription on a T-shirt, “I F---ed God Up The Arse’ is comic as well as shocking in context. Teachers may want their classes to read books in which they recognise city streets as they are; the kind of streets on which Damilola Taylor, whose story informs this novel, was mindlessly stabbed to death. But there are too many episodes and phrases, which – out of context - would make the most courageous English teacher hesitate. Life’s busy enough without picking fights with parents or the Daily Mail.
Danger beneath the comedy
Many BfK readers will already know this 2011 Booker shortlisted novel. Harri has recently arrived from Ghana with his older sister and his midwife mother – longing for Papa, Grandma and Baby Agnes to join them. They live on the 9th floor of Copenhagen House, on a three-tower council estate. He’s a positive, very likeable lad who makes friends and enemies quickly, alert to the alien culture he’s landed in. While he makes sense of his new environment, he is the most engaging, but innocent, of narrators; and what he records will often be interpreted very differently by his reader – a source of comic irony which would not be lost on early teenagers. Not that the consequences of his innocence are always comic – as Harri’s life is drawn into the violence and knives of the Dell Farm Crew, we know long before he does who the killer is and the danger Harri is in.
There are elements of the book which might deter young readers. The monologues of Harri’s ‘Guardian Pigeon’ – or is it a Pigeon of Death? - which punctuate his narrative seem heavily contrived: ‘Live the moments and the monuments will take care of themselves, carved from marble after you’ve gone or shaped in the clay of the still-living’. It’s too much for a pigeon to carry. Again, some young readers, with an appetite for swift action, might regret that the search for the killer of the Damilola figure lies submerged for long periods beneath Harri’s account of his daily life in school, neighbourhood and tower block.
Nevertheless there’s much here to enjoy for the out-of-school reader. Above all, there is Harri’s voice. I’ve no idea what Ghanaian fused with South London argot sounds like, and in any case literal authenticity is often both tedious and incoherent; but here we enjoy and believe in the voice – it’s alive, simple, funny and inquisitive. Young readers would surely enjoy Harri’s frequent resort to play-format dialogue, such as those between Harri and his mate Dean, with whom he sets up a TV CSI-style two-strong surveillance team (‘Me: Roger that, Captain. I’m on it like stink’). Like many kids, Harri’s fond of lists (‘The biggest bad things Jordan has done’). And there are the relationships with his family, especially with his sister Lydia where underlying affection is expressed through the worst insults they can swap:
‘Me: You can peel them [cassavas] with your breath. It’s like a dragon.
Lydia: Your breath’s like a dog. Have you been licking bumholes again?’
Points are awarded for the best abuse, and Harri is comfortably in the lead.
So it’s one of those books for the right reader at the right time. That reader will be one untroubled by frequent deviations, interested (through experience or lack of it) in the vitality, humour and terror of city streets, enjoying the ironic gaps left by Harri’s naive narration, with a relish for comedy of word and situation and yet able to face the danger beneath that comedy.
Stephen Kelman himself told the Evening Standard, ‘If we can get kids reading the book who might not ordinarily read, it’s exposing them to something that will allow them to look at their life from a different angle. If that gives them an insight into a way out of these problems, then that’s fantastic.’ That, he feels, ‘will mean more to me than any prize.’
Pigeon English (978 1 4088 1063 7, £12.99 trade pbk) is published by Bloomsbury.
Geoff Fox has now retired as Co-Editor (UK) of Children’s Literature in Education, but continues to work on the board and as an occasional teller of traditional tales.