Writing in a child’s voice is always a high-wire act, requiring the author to balance the demands of a sophisticated narrative with the credible limits of a juvenile narrator. Those who have pulled it off range from J.D. Salinger to Emma Donoghue. With his first novel, British author Stephen Kelman takes it one step further: vaulting barriers of age, race and language, he doesn’t just write in the voice of a child, but that of an 11-year-old African immigrant. The result is a tour de force.
Freshly arrived from Ghana, Harrison Opoku lives with his mother and older sister in a London housing project, and runs a daily gauntlet of bullies and gangs. The story begins with the stabbing death of a schoolmate. Fuelled by CSI fantasies, Harri embarks on a naive mission to find the killer, taking fingerprints with Sellotape. Since he is surrounded by hoodlums with names like Killa and X-Fire, the culprits seem scarily obvious, at least to the reader. But the substance of the book lies in Harri’s quirky wit and uncanny sense of wonder, as he navigates his world like a boy from another planet.
Still discovering English, he treats it like fresh paint. Narrating in a giddy mix of Ghanaian and Brit slang, he overuses “huitious” (frightening) and “Asweh” (I swear), while informing us that “gay and dumb and lame mean all the same.” On the cusp of adolescence, Harri views sex as an unknown horror, personified by the precocious Miquita. (“I wish there were no such thing as boobs, then you wouldn’t want to squeeze them.”) Meanwhile a pigeon watches over him, speaking in poetic flights of oracular insight.
Kelman, who grew up in a housing project, taps a voice that feels authentic. Though its contrivance can be transparent, it’s like a prism, refracting the world into wild, alien colours. Funny and poignant, Pigeon English is fired with an uncontainable spirit, a rare distillate of boyhood optimism and adult wisdom.