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The high towers of a London housing project are a world away from Ghana, but 11-year-old Harrison Opuku grabs hold of his new immigrant life with unchecked curiosity and excitement. Surrounded by family and friends, he is a carefree young boy until he witnesses the murder of a classmate. The bloody scene and the mother broken by grief soon become so indelible in their minds that Hari and his best friend begin their own investigation. Armed with makeshift equipment and all the tips they can absorb from CSI reruns, they race to unmask the murderer the police are unable to find, never thinking that their amateur detective work will bring them face-to-face with a killer. Even as Hari is searching for a murderer, he's also busy being a young boy—running track, wooing his first girlfriend, and befriending a wild pigeon. But the sweet innocence of his boyish pursuits is threatened when he is tempted by the camaraderie of a tough local gang and finds himself tested in ways he had never imagined.
Vibrant and pitch-perfect, Hari's voice eloquently captures his world, rendering it with a singular grit and innocence. With his combination of street smarts and childlike naïveté, this narrator will remain in our imaginations long after the last page has been turned. From its quiet opening to its shattering climax, Pigeon English is a celebration of resilience and wonder. Hari's miniature yet limitless world invites us to expand our own in one of the most accomplished and profoundly affecting novels of the year.
Kelman's debut novel is a well-tuned if simplistic portrait of a kid's life in the housing projects of London. After 11-year-old Harri, whose family has immigrated from Ghana, sees a classmate lying dead on the sidewalk one night, Harri and his buddy, Dean Griffin, set out to solve the murder, looking for the murder weapon, interviewing suspects, and gathering evidence. But the strength of this novel is not its murder mystery; rather, it's in hearing all Harri's thoughts as he falls in love, talks to his baby sister, or expresses himself in his own idiosyncratic language. The street-talk slang that Harri uses—boring things take "donkey hours" and Nike Air trainers are "bo-styles"—is crisp and mirthful, the perfect match to his at once naïve and revealing views on things like religion and race. The main flaw is also a feature: Harri's a very well-drawn 11-year-old, and no matter how cute he and his worldview are, it's sometimes tempting to want to pat him on the head and send him along his way. (July)
A charming narrative voice energizes this lively first novel, which has brought enthusiastic reviews, healthy sales and a movie contract to its young British author.
Eleven-year-old Harrison ("Harri") Opuku has migrated with his mother and older sister Lydia from Ghana (where his father, baby brother and grandmother remain) to a "council estate" (i.e., public housing in a tower block) in the south of London. Gangs of teenagers from neighborhood estates prowl the violent streets, but Harri responds to their threats by joining forces with a friend (Jordan) as "detectives" resolved to find those responsible for the fatal stabbing of another boy. Kelman quickly gives the reader emotional identification with Harri, who is mischievous (he loves tormenting the huffy, whiny Lydia), a romantic goof (who hopes against hope that his blond schoolmate Poppy will acknowledge his existence), energetic (he's locally renowned for his speed) and a verbal athlete who speaks in a lively multilingual argot festooned with vivid, funny locutions. When he solemnly grouses, "In England there's a hell of different words for everything," or pronounces everything along the spectrum that runs from delightful to alarming "hutious," there's just no resisting the kid. Unhappily, even though the aforementioned slaying (based on the true story of the 2000 murder of a Nigerian boy) is given central stage early on, the story is depressingly underplotted and really isn't much of a novel. Its title also refers (too coyly) to the pigeon that lands on Harri's window ledge, which becomes a kind of protector and exemplar, clumsily signifying both freedom and flight. And when, late in the book, the bird itself swoops in to share the narrative, we sense how desperate Kelman is to fill up pages.
Even a kid as feisty and ingratiating as Harri can overstay his welcome. A pity, because brief snatches of his embryonic wit, street smarts and survival instincts are about as hutious as it gets.
…charm and peril are on full display in Stephen Kelman's first novel…[a] mixture of ridiculous observations and accidental insights makes Pigeon English continually surprising and endearing…Whether [Harrison's] explaining the rules of farting or the tragedy of gang killings, there's a sweetness here that's irresistible.
The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“Simultaneously accurate and fantastical, this boy's love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through” Emma Donoghue, author of "Room", on the original novel of "Pigeon English"
“Pigeon English paints a vivid portrait with honesty, sympathy and wit, of a much neglected milieu, and it addresses urgent social questions. It is horrifying, tender and funny . . . Brilliant” Daily Telegraph on the original novel of "Pigeon English"
“Urgent . . . intelligently written . . . and thought-provoking.” Daily Telegraph on "Mad About The Boy"
Simultaneously accurate and fantastical, this boy's love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through
Daily Telegraph on the original novel of "Pigeon English"
Pigeon English paints a vivid portrait with honesty, sympathy and wit, of a much neglected milieu, and it addresses urgent social questions. It is horrifying, tender and funny . . . Brilliant
Daily Telegraph on "Mad About The Boy"
Urgent . . . intelligently written . . . and thought-provoking.
Ten-year-old Harrison Opuku has recently immigrated to London from Ghana. Harri is a joyous child who loves everyone—the pigeon on his balcony, his baby sister still in Ghana, the girl who sits next to him in class, his parents, his teachers, and the neighborhood thief with an appealing dog. Less easy to like, let alone love, are the members of the Dell Farm Crew, a local gang whose threats make every school day a challenge. When a classmate is murdered, Harri and his friend decide to discover the killer. As this charming boy gets closer to a solution, readers will feel their adrenaline start pumping, hoping Harri will succeed and remain safe. VERDICT Narrated by Harri in a laugh-out-loud combination of Ghanaian and British slang, this first novel places readers in the London of large housing projects where legal and illegal immigrants struggle to make new lives for themselves, where crime is a way of life, and where a good-hearted boy is an anomaly. If your patrons liked Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and if they rooted for Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire, they will love Harri Opuku. [See Prepub Alert, 1/17/11.]—Andrea Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS
Read an Excerpt
You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought.
It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt
Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’
Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’
Jordan: ‘One quid then.’
You wanted to touch it but you couldn’t get close
enough. There was a line in the way:
POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS
If you cross the line you’ll turn to dust.
We weren’t allowed to talk to the policeman, he had
to concentrate for if the killer came back. I could see
the chains hanging from his belt but I couldn’t see the
The dead boy’s mamma was guarding the blood. She
wanted it to stay, you could tell. 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 up into the sky. A pigeon was
looking for his chop. He walked right in the blood. He was
even sad as well, you could tell where his eyes were all pink
The flowers were already bent. There were pictures of the
dead boy wearing his school uniform. His jumper was
My jumper’s blue. My uniform’s better. The only bad
thing about it is the tie, it’s too scratchy. I hate it when
they’re scratchy like that.
There were bottles of beer instead of candles and the
dead boy’s friends wrote messages to him. They all said he
was a great friend. Some of the spelling was wrong but I
didn’t mind. His football boots were on the railings tied up
by their laces. They were nearly new Nikes, the studs were
proper metal and everything.
Jordan: ‘Shall I t’ief them? He don’t need ’em no more.’
I just pretended I didn’t hear him. Jordan would never
really steal them, they were a million times too big. They
looked too empty just hanging there. I wanted to wear
them but they’d never fit.
Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see
him very much because he was older and he didn’t go
to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and
you never even wanted him to fall off. I said a prayer
for him inside my head. It just said sorry. That’s all I
could remember. I pretended like if I kept looking hard
enough I could make the blood move and go back in the
shape of a boy. I could bring him back alive that way. It
happened before, where I used to live there was a chief
who brought his son back like that. It was a long time
ago, before I was born. Asweh, it was a miracle. It didn’t
work this time.
I gave him my bouncy ball. I don’t need it anymore, I’ve
got M ve more under my bed. Jordan only gave him a pebble
he found on the floor.
Me: ‘That doesn’t count. It has to be something that
belonged to you.’
Jordan: ‘I ain’t got nothing. I didn’t know we had to
bring a present.’
I gave Jordan a strawberry Chewit to give to the dead
boy, then I showed him how to make a cross. Both the two
of us made a cross. We were very quiet. It even felt important.
We ran all the way home. I beat Jordan easily. I can
beat everybody, I’m the fastest in Year 7. I just wanted to
get away before the dying caught us.
The buildings are all mighty around here. My tower is
as high as the lighthouse at Jamestown. There are three
towers all in a row: Luxembourg House, Stockholm House
and Copenhagen House. I live in Copenhagen House. My
flat is on floor 9 out of 14. It’s not even hutious, I can look
from the window now and my belly doesn’t even turn over.
I love going in the lift, it’s brutal, especially when you’re
the only one in there. Then you could be a spirit or a spy.
You even forget the pissy smell because you’re going so
It’s proper windy at the bottom like a whirlpool. If you
stand at the bottom where the tower meets the ground and
put your arms out, you can pretend like you’re a bird. You
can feel the wind try to pick you up, it’s nearly like flying.
Me: ‘Hold your arms out wider!’
Jordan: ‘They’re as wide as I can get ’em! This is so gay,
I’m not doing it no more!’
Me: ‘It’s not gay, it’s brilliant!’
Asweh, it’s the best way to feel alive. You only don’t
want the wind to pick you up, because you don’t know
where it will drop you. It might drop you in the bushes or
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. It’s very helpful. Gay and dumb and lame mean all
the same. Piss and slash and tinkle mean all the same (the
same as greet the chief). There’s a million words for a bulla.
When I came to my new school, do you know what’s the
first thing Connor Green said to me?
Connor Green: ‘Have you got happiness?’
Connor Green: ‘Are you sure you’ve got happiness?’
Connor Green: ‘But are you really sure?’
Me: ‘I think so.’
He kept asking me if I had happiness. He wouldn’t stop.
In the end it just vexed me. Then I wasn’t sure. Connor
Green was laughing, I didn’t even know why. Then Manik
told me it was a trick.
Manik: ‘He’s not asking if you’ve got happiness, he’s
asking if you’ve got a penis. He says it to everyone. It’s just
It only sounds like happiness but really it means a penis.
Connor Green: ‘Got ya! Hook, line and sinker!’
Connor Green is always making tricks. He’s just a confusionist.
That’s the first thing you learn about him. At least
I didn’t lose. I do have a penis. The trick doesn’t work if
Some people use their balconies for hanging washing
or growing plants. I only use mine for watching the
helicopters. It’s a bit dizzy. You can’t stay out there for
more than one minute or you’ll turn into an icicle. I
saw X-Fire painting his name on the wall of Stockholm
House. He didn’t know I could see him. He was proper
quick and the words still came out dope-fine. I want to
write my own name that big but the paint in a can is too
dangerous, if you get it on yourself it never washes off,
The baby trees are in a cage. They put a cage around the
tree to stop you stealing it. Asweh, it’s very crazy. Who’d
steal a tree anyway? Who’d chook a boy just to get his