Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Pigeon English

Pigeon English

4.1 7
by Stephen Kelman

View All Available Formats & Editions

"Intelligent, observant." —The New Yorker

"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 Opoku." —Library Journal, starred review

"In turns funny and tragic . . . Its message is universal." –Huffington


"Intelligent, observant." —The New Yorker

"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 Opoku." —Library Journal, starred review

"In turns funny and tragic . . . Its message is universal." –Huffington Post

Advise yourself! Jump into Pigeon English and experience the jubilant, infectious voice of Harrison Opoku—a boy awed by the city, obsessed with gummy candy, a friend to everyone he meets. See why he is bo-styles. How being the fastest runner in Year 7 makes him dope-fine. And how crazy things get when Harri and his best friend launch their own investigation into the murder of a classmate and one of the Dell Farm Crew’s hutious criminals feels them closing in on him. You’ll want this book to last donkey hours, and you’ll see why Harri is truly a “hero for our times.”*

"Like Room . . . and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time . . . Pigeon English is a novel for adults told in the remarkable voice of a child. In this fine company, Kelman's novel stands out." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, there have been certain rules observed when children play detective. Stephen Kelman throws them all out." —Christian Science Monitor

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
…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
Publishers Weekly
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)
From the Publisher

"This this boy’s love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through. Pigeon English is a triumph."
—Emma Donoghue, author of Room

"Continually surprising and endearing ... There’s a sweetness here that’s irresistible."
Washington Post

"[A] work of deep sympathy and imagination."
Boston Globe

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Winning [and] ingenious. . . Pigeon English packs a wallop."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Intelligent, observant."
The New Yorker

"Since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, there have been certain rules observed when children play detective. Stephen Kelman throws them all out ... The mystery is secondary to the pleasures of listening to Harri."
Christian Science Monitor

"In turns funny and tragic ... Its message is universal."
Huffington Post

"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."
Library Journal, starred review

"Pigeon English is a book to fall in love with: a funny book, a true book, a shattering book ... If you loved Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Emma Donoghue’s Man Booker–shortlisted Room, you’ll love this book too."
The Times (UK)

"Adapting the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye ... Pigeon English convincingly evokes life on the edge ... The humour, the resilience, the sheer ebullience of its narrator—a hero for our times—should ensure the book becomes, deservedly, a classic."
Mail on Sunday (UK)

"This exuberant novel sparkles with wonder and delight ... A vivid snapshot of contemporary urban childhood, it’s Harri’s voice, brilliantly captured and entirely convincing, which makes this book such a joy."
Daily Mail (UK)

"Filled with energy, humour and compassion, Pigeon English is a gut-wrenchingly sad novel that makes you laugh out loud."
Guardian (UK)

"Pigeon English is a fascinating look at a culture pushed to the margins by a nation’s economic and empathic indifference; Harri is our immediately likable tour guide."
Time Out Chicago

"Kelman’s [debut] has a powerful story, a pacy plot and engaging characters. It paints a vivid portrait with honesty, sympathy and wit . . . It is horrifying, tender and funny . . . Pigeon English will be read by millions . . . Parents who do their children’s homework are in for a treat."
Telegraph (UK)

"Writing in a child’s voice is always a high-wire act . . . Those who have pulled it off range from J.D. Salinger to Emma Donoghue. Kelman takes it one step further . . . The result is a tour de force . . . Funny and poignant, Pigeon English is fired with an uncontainable spirit, a rare distillate of boyhood optimism and adult wisdom."
Maclean’s (Canada)

"Kelman’s command of Harrison’s innocent all-seeing eyes makes for an engaging read."
The Daily Beast

"Funny and poignant . . . What might be described as Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets Trainspotting . . . Undeniable."
Toronto Star (Canada)

"Like Harper Lee’s Scout Finch and Miriam Toews’ Thebes Troutman, Stephen Kelman’s Harri is an original who seems to breathe real oxygen. Watching Harri’s exploits will make a reader want to laugh, marvel and cheer, but also cringe in fear . . . To be moved to care this deeply for a fictional character is a rare experience . . . The effect is one of profound transcendence."
Winnipeg Free Press (Canada)

"Told with humour, despite the gritty subject matter and setting . . . Pigeon English charms its way into some hard places."
Financial Times (UK)

"Harri’s joie de vivre is infectious and his voice simultaneously charming and haunting—similar to the narrators of Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And much like those books, Pigeon English is a story for adults."

"Authentic and audacious . . . Harri is . . .tantalisingly sympathetic."
Scotsman (UK)

"Imaginative, gut-wrenching and powerful . . . It’s a window on a world many of us will never experience (thankfully), and it is beautifully and intelligently written."
Edmonton Journal (Canada)

"A charming narrative voice energizes this lively first novel . . . festooned with vivid, funny locutions . . . There’s just no resisting the kid . . . his embryonic wit, street smarts and survival instincts are about as hutious as it gets."

"Hilarious, touching and terrifying by turns . . . In his evocation of the dreaming that brings many immigrants to cities all over the world and the danger and despair they face there, Kelman has crafted a book that soars."
Chronicle Herald (Canada)

"Laced with humour, innocence and authenticity."
The Independent (UK)

"Prepare to fall in love with Harri . . . [A] fresh, funny and ultimately moving story of 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant to London."
Shelf Awareness, starred review

"There is an irrepressible joy in Harri . . . Harri is a hero for all ages . . . He worms his way into your affections and leaves you breathless . . . Pigeon English is a mesmerizing tale of naïveté and discovery that has us rooting on the sidelines, hoping that Harri will triumph."
The Rover (Canada)

"The strength of this debut novel lies in Harri’s voice . . . Teens will appreciate Harri’s winning narration, his child’s-eye view of adult situations, and the rising tension when playing detective becomes a high-stakes matter."
School Library Journal, Adult Books 4 Teens

"Pigeon English has already been hailed as a ‘brilliant’ and ‘deeply moving’ depiction of urban life . . . Far from being a political tract, however, Kelman's book uses Harri to convey a straightforward message about how good can triumph, whatever the odds."
London Evening Standard (UK)

"Well-tuned . . . crisp and mirthful."
Publishers Weekly

"Opoku’s plight is both heart-warming and heartbreaking, as his actions unwittingly speed the inevitable cruel crash of manhood into his quietly contented world."
The List (UK), 4 out of 5 stars

"A book both chilling and charming . . . A coming-of age tale that feels achingly accurate."
Globe and Mail (Canada)

"A startingly assured piece of work [with] . . . a level of sensitivity and craftsmanship which few crime novelists can offer. What strikes the reader all the way through is the superb control with which Kelman writes . . . Kelman is a writer to watch."
 —Mystery Scene

"Pigeon English introduces readers to a Dickensian London circa multicultural now. A violent and riveting coming of age story, Stephen Kelman’s debut novel also contains well-timed moments of comedy, affecting family drama, and just enough hopefulness."
Vancouver Sun (Canada)

"A powerful and impressive novel . . . Kelman knows the world of boys—their language, their humour, their thoughts—and Harri’s voice is dazzlingly authentic."
—Clare Morrall, author of the Booker-shortlisted Astonishing Splashes of Colour and The Man Who Disappeared

"Rich with lingo, energy, and occasional terror, Pigeon English is a stark and funny look at life in London’s rough housing projects. After another hutious gangland chooking, eleven-year-old Harri is on the case, tracking the murderer for donkey hours while impressing Poppy with his bo-styles. A compelling anatomy of our inner cities."
—Tony D’Souza, author of Whiteman and Mule

Emma Donoghue

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.
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Product Details

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Publication date:

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:


 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
and dead.
• *

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
the sea.

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?’
 Me: ‘Yes.’
 Connor Green: ‘Are you sure you’ve got happiness?’
 Me: ‘Yes.’
 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
a trick.’
 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
it’s true.

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,
even forever.
 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
Chicken Joe’s?

Meet the Author

Stephen Kelman grew up in the housing projects of Luton, England. He has worked as a careworker, a warehouse operative, in marketing, and in local government administration. Pigeon English was shortlisted for the Man Booker and  Desmond Elliot prizes and was named a “best first novel of 2011”* in his native England; it has been published in twenty countries.

*Waterstone’s bookstore

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Pigeon English 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
it was ok
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
sandiek More than 1 year ago
Prepare to fall in love. Harrison Opuku bursts off the page and into the reader’s heart. Harri is eleven, a recent immigrant from Ghana. He is now living in England with his mother and sister; his father, grandmother and baby sister left behind until the family can afford for them to come also. Living in the projects, Harri is amazed at all the new things he sees. The subway is an amazing item that he can’t quite believe work. He thinks it is bo-styles; the word for the ultimate cool. He is thrilled by remote control cars, cell phones, and new trainers. Harri’s best skill is his running; no one can catch him when he runs. He is the kind of boy who is open to all experiences, taking them in and finding the good in everything around him. Harri tends to like everyone; even the pigeons who flock around the housing projects, occasionally getting inside. Where others see a mess that should be cleared away, Harri sees a friend. But not everything is positive in Harri’s world. Gangs abound, and as a newcomer, he is tested for inclusion. Daily life is full of insults and casual violence, and Harri is sometimes tempted by these acts. Worst of all, a boy who is the star of the basketball court, is murdered on the streets. The motive? No one knows for sure, maybe even just for his dinner. Harri and his friend Dean decide that they will find the killer. Full of facts gained from CSI shows, they attempt to lift fingerprints and find DNA, sure that they can find the culprit and bring him to justice. Stephen Kelman has created a character that readers will not soon forget. The language is spot-on for a child growing up in modern England in the housing projects. The language is sometimes rough, and the facts that are commonplace knowledge breathtaking, but through it all, the sweetness of Harri’s personality shines through. Kelman himself grew up in the housing projects of England and worked as a careworker, a warehouse operative, in marketing and in local government administration before focusing on writing. Pigeon English has been nominated for the Booker Prize and readers will not be surprised by that fact. This is a stunning, excellent book; the fact that it is a debut novel is almost unimaginable. This book is recommended for all readers.
emmyAG More than 1 year ago
I haven't yet finished this book only having got half way through. But so far, I am really hoping that it gets better. I love the plot and the idea of the book is brilliant...hats off to the author. But for me, it is missing something and to me that something is sunstance. I feel like the chapters are pointless being there because it is just one unchanging story. The main charactor is an 11 year old boy who is relatively new to the country and is finding hard to fit in, he wants to be in the gang but for protection, he doesn't want to be naughty...and I feel for him, but that is a far as it goes. I really wanted to like this book, but right now, I am finding it difficult to pick it back up again...after putting it down. But this is just my oppinion...yours might be different, so I strongly suggest you read it and see what you think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Delightful,funny and sad in parts. a great debut! I hope to see more from this author!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't know when I've been so enamoured of a character!