April 20, 2011
Pigeon English & Voice
After a hiccup earlier this month, I finally went back and plowed through the last fifty pages of Steven Kelman’s promising debut novel, Pigeon English. It was difficult, but not because of the quality of the book – this will not be, per se, a review proper, but let me just assure you right off the bat that this is a good book, whatever else I will say about it below. No, it was difficult because it is a tragic book, and at the moment I am feeling particularly unable to deal with stories in which horrible things happen to children. This isn’t much of a spoiler, by the way. The first page opens with one child’s ruminations on the blood leaking out of another, dead, child.
Kelman’s novel is set in a ghetto where 11-year-old Harrison Opoku has settled after immigrating to England from Ghana with his mother and older sister. Unlike in so many other books about poverty and social decline depicted in terms of the unreadably tragic horrors they wreak on children – Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals comes immediately to mind – Opoku’s personal history isn’t terribly dark at all. He has a father, baby sister and grandmother back in Ghana who are just waiting for their turn to join the rest of the family in the UK. Kelman hasn’t burdened Harri with abusive caregivers, any history of sexual abuse, drug addiction, child labour, early loss – none of that. He’s just an observant and adventurous kid taking in his new society as it comes to him. He seems like he might come through whatever trials this impoverished English neighbourhood might offer him in good shape.
The story is told in the first person by Harri with only occasional (and ill-advised) digressions into the head of a pigeon. I found this choice of voice – Harri, not the pigeon – problematic. I don’t take issue in general with authors who choose to tell a story in a voice completely unlike their own. Authors who choose to give a voice to minorities, the mentally ill, murderers, animals, or cans o’ beans are welcome to do so regardless of their own age, colouring or species. In doing so they often give voices to segments of the population utterly under-represented in fiction. Kelman’s background growing up in an estate similar to Harri’s even gives him some insider credibility – he knows what it is to be a kid in a housing project. Very well.
Regardless, I found myself skeptical of the direction Harri’s story took, a doubt that would have been dispelled if I’d felt the author was a little more representative of the character he was giving voice to. I felt there was a disconnection between Harri’s relatively stable situation and innocent voice, and the fate that eventually befalls him. Why Harri, who has friends, family and a strong sense of self, should have become embroiled with the Dell Farm Crew isn’t entirely clear to me, unless we assume powerful gangs offer equal temptation to all young boys. Though doesn’t that to some extent dull the argument sometimes made that the young men in violent gangs are “troubled”; that gangs are the last refuge for a culture of poor, powerless boys without strong paternal guidance? Certainly the implication offered by HBO’s stunning (and utterly believable) series The Wire is that young people are sucked into the violence of the “corners” are forced there by deteriorating social conditions and horrifying personal circumstances. Harri, coming from a place of relative strength, doesn’t seem to belong there.
Kelman’s thesis can be said to be, then, that this can happen even to smart, resourceful young men who just happen to live in the wrong place and who turn up at the wrong time. The real tragedy of Harri’s story is that he’s fundamentally a good kid, and still gets eaten by the estate. I’m skeptical. Many people, every day, survive the ghettos, projects and housing estates of deteriorating Western cities. Why not Harri? Is this just a story of bad luck? I’d feel reassured if I knew the author really had been there. Given a claim that seems dubious to me, I’d appreciate a claimant with more authority. It would leave me with a better sense that Pigeon English is a book about the rot of Western society, rather than it’s being another addition to the growing ranks of tragedy-porn.
But enough of that. I maintain the book is basically good. It has other virtues, and I encourage you to read the review offered by Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This. Kelman has a clear talent for evoking and provoking, and I’d eagerly check out whatever he has to offer next.