Sunday, March 20, 2011

PIGEON ENGLISH by Stephen Kelman (2011) House of Anansi Press, 263 pages

Narrator Harrison Opoku, a recent Ghanaian transplant to London, lives with his older sister Lydia and their mother in one of the housing projects that is bursting with new immigrants and native residents on the dole. Harri is only eleven, but, with his father back in Ghana supporting his grandmother and his baby sister Agnes, he feels he's the man of the house, responsible for the welfare of the women in his life.

PIGEON ENGLISH opens with the discovery of the corpse of a neighborhood boy familiar to Harri. Harri observes that "the dead boy's mama was guarding the blood. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away but she wouldn't let it. She wasn't even crying, she was just stiff and fierce like it was her job to scare the rain back into the sky." Harri remembers another death he witnessed in Ghana: "An orange lady got hit by a trotro, nobody even saw it coming. I pretended like all the oranges rolling everywhere were her happy memories and they were looking for a new person to stick to so they didn't get wasted." The way Harri processes death is true to my experience with children his age puzzling it out through symbol and analogy that makes sense to them. However, in the projects, in spite of the police appeal for witnesses to come forward, the community responds with complicit silence.

Harri is wide-eyed and keen to absorb the world around him. As a kid, he feels the pressure to try to fit in culturally, so he draws Adidas stripes on his generic running shoes and tries to fill his head with unfamiliar slang: "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. Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same. Piss and slash and tinkle meal all the same (the same as greet the chief.)"

Not much escapes Harri's curious gaze and he is as entranced by the idea of the CCTV cameras as extra help for God "for the places where the devil is very strong" as he is by the pigeons who make the housing estate their home, birds he plans to befriend because he admires their ability to fly. If he runs fast enough, he'll be "just like a spirit."

When it's his sister Lydia's birthday, Harri gives her the unexpected gift of being remembered in the future when he spots wet cement that they can jump in and make their mark, then sign their names: "The footprints are there to tell everybody we were here."

Throughout PIGEON ENGLISH, Harri's ebullient attitude towards the new world of which he is now a part reminded me of Baby's matter-of-fact wonder about her equally challenging life in Heather O'Neill's LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS.

The novel is broken down into five sections, marked by the months March through July and each of those sections is affiliated with an emblem that helps Harri interpret the significant changes in his life: airplane, fingerprint, closed circuit camera, waves, and pigeon. Those icons may seem enigmatic to you now, but when you read this tour de force fresh-voiced narrative, you will weep with their resonance.

If my word is not enough, consider what Emma Donoghue wrote about PIGEON ENGLISH. It's "a wonderful novel with a Ghanaian-Londoner child narrator you'll never forget. Simultaneously accurate and fantastical, this boy's love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through." It's a triumph.

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