musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Stephen Kelman’

Birds in the Room, Birds in the Head

You can’t help but wake up when it sounds like your roof is falling in. Well, the sound wasn’t quite that loud, but it DID sound like something very heavy hadn’t fallen through the ceiling of my apartment one morning last month. It was about seven in the morning and as I lay in bed, I struggled to open my eyes to find out what had happened. It didn’t take me long to see the cause of the noise: a bird was flying around my apartment.

First question: how did this bird get inside? I don’t keep any pet birds, so it wasn’t like something had sneaked out of its cage and was taking a joy ride. A quick investigation revealed the entry point where the bird burglar had broken in; a fairly large rip in a screen window in my bedroom. The second question: how was I going to get this bird out? I live in a corner apartment and have large sliding windows in both rooms, so I went and opened all those windows as wide as they could go, and waited for Mr. Bird to realize he had an exit plan. Thankfully, his instincts were quick and accurate and he soon flew away. What a way to start the morning!


I’m not sure if this bird incident inspired me in the choice of new book to read, but a couple of weeks later I picked up Pigeon English, the debut novel by Stephen Kelman. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011 and garnered all sorts of rave reviews in the process. Emma Donoghue, the author of the bestselling Room, said: “This boy’s love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through.” Another author, Clare Morrall, called it “a powerful and impressive novel …. utterly convincing and deeply moving.” I would agree with those comments. The novel is funny and disturbing, sad and joyous. The main character is Harrison Opoku, known as Harri, an 11-year old boy who has recently moved from Ghana to London with his mother and older sister. The novel, narrated by Harri, details his acclimation to a foreign country, dealing with bullies and violence at school, discovering girls, and trying to play detective to find out who killed one of his young classmates.

Kelman’s use of dialogue, particularly teenage slang, is brilliant. Some of the slang is baffling at first, but once you get accustomed to it all, you find it mesmerizing. All these things aside, there is a disturbing religious thread that runs through the story. The “pigeon” in the title is an actual bird that Harri befriends. Unlike the bird that flew into my place, Harri is able to “communicate” with his bird, or at least come to some sort of understanding and develop a relationship. This pigeon, however, ends up being some sort of metaphor for God, the bird even promising Harri that “Everything’s going to be alright.”

For me, such simplistic reassurances and promises of an afterlife only ruin what could have been a truly great novel. As it stands, this is still a funny and gripping read. There are passages in the book that may bring tears to your eyes, and certainly parts that will make you laugh out loud. It’s just a shame that damn pigeon had to ruin the vibe.

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